Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On officers

When I received my training, such as it was, in the law as it applies to journalism - in 1989/90 - the lesson that stuck most in my mind was the simplest:
The only special treatment you can claim, as a journalist, is the right to be treated exactly like everyone else. You have no authority to go anywhere, to do, say, photograph or talk to anything or anyone, that any member of the public couldn't do. You can flash a press card, sure, but all it does is maybe help to persuade the person you're talking to that you're not just a random prodnose. Legally, it means bugger all.
At first it didn't seem like much. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. It's very comforting to be just a part of the crowd. And it has a flip side: "no rights" also means "no obligations". There's no requirement, for instance, for a journalist to identify him/herself, except as a courtesy.

(There was also a very cool lesson about libel: "If you're going to libel someone, don't pussyfoot around. Lay into them properly. At least that way you'll get your money's worth." But I digress.)

Sadly, I believe this is no longer the case in Britain. I've read, for instance - with what accuracy I don't know - that journalists now enjoy the right to take photographs of some types of events and places. The implication being, of course, that ordinary people don't have that right.

It's always a mistake for a law to single out a group of people for special treatment. Show me a law containing a personal label (such as "journalist", "teacher", "police officer", "minister of religion", "foreign national"), and I'll show you a bad law. ("Bad" in the sense of unnecessary, ineffective, morally corrupt, or any combination of the above.)

For example: police officers are entitled to enter your house if they have a warrant, and that's fine - anyone can do that, although most of us would have a hard time persuading a judge to issue the warrant. They can also enter if they have a good reason to believe that it's necessary to protect someone or something from imminent harm. Again, well and good. If you hear someone yelling "Help! Rape!" from a private house, you should probably do the same, so long as you're reasonably sure you'd survive the experience.

But somewhere along the line, some fool (I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt in assuming that they were probably just stupid, not actively malicious) decided that police officers, in particular, should also force their way in where they have merely the suspicion that something illegal might have happened - for instance, if they smell cannabis smoke. And that's how we end up with stories like this one. Which leads, as inexorably as eyes follow legs, to more special rules being made, driving the wedge ever deeper between Us and Them. Until you reach the position where both parties forget that they are supposed to be on the same side.

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