So what actually did happen at Braehead shopping centre just a week ago today? And what should we make of the extraordinary media storm that then followed? Was it all just because a man took an innocent photograph of his daughter only to be confronted by police under anti-terrorist powers?
To begin with this affair seemed just like another example of ”Bad Law”, the sort of piece which leads the reader to think either the “law is an ass” or at least those exercising some lawful power are asses. Sometimes these incidents turn out to be more complicated than the initial one-sided or incomplete news reports suggest; the fault turns out to be lazy journalism, rather than incompetent law enforcement. And sometimes it does turn out that the law and those wielding the law’s coercive powers actually are asses.
This particular story begins with the detailed allegations a Mr Chris White made on Facebook within hours of the alleged incident.
“Around 4pm this evening I took the attached photo of my 4 year old daughter looking cute on the back of a vespa seat at an ice cream bar inside Braehead shopping centre in the middle of a shopping trip. Having just bought her some new jigsaws we were going to go look at some clothes shops but never managed to continue our shopping trip.
“Walking down the shopping mall a man approached me from behind as I was carrying my daughter in my arms. He came from behind me, cutting in front of me and told me to stop. That was quite a shock as I am wary of people with crew cuts and white shirts suddenly appearing in front of me, but then realised he was a security guard.
“He then said I had been spotted taking photos in the shopping centre which was ’illegal’ and not allowed and then asked me to delete any photos I had taken. I explained I had taken 2 photos of my daughter eating ice cream and that she was the only person in the photo so didn’t see any problem. i also said that I wasn’t that willing to delete the photo’s and there seemed little point as I had actually uploaded them to facebook.
“He then said i would have to stay right where I was while he called the police, which seemed as little extreme. My daughter was crying by this stage, but I said that was fine I would wait and began to comfort my daughter who was saying she didn’t like the man and wanted to go. After about 5 minutes two police officers arrived.
“The older police officer was actually quite intimidating in his nature. He said that there had been a complaint about me taking photos and that there were clear signs in Braehead shopping centre saying that no photographs were allowed. I tried to explain that I hadn’t seen any clearly displayed signs and that I had taken 2 photos of my daughter.
“As i was trying to explain he said I was interrupting him and that I should remain quiet until he had finished speaking to me. Not wanting to distress my daughter further, and to allow him to finish I let him continue. At one stage i was reassuring my daughter that everything was okay, only to be told I wasn’t listening by the officer.
“Once he had finished, i then started to explain again my situation, only for the officer to start speaking again. Apparently different rules of respect apply when someone other than a police officer is speaking. I explained that that far from being aggressive when the security guard came over, the way he approached me was threatening and intimidating. I was told that was my word against his. Although this didn’t seem to be the case when the security guard alleged that I was threatening when I had a 4 year old in my arms and waited patiently for the police to arrive.
“The police officer than started to say that there were privacy issues around photographs, to which I said yes and in a busy shopping centre I waited until only my daughter was in the shot. I explained that I was happy to show him the photos although not sure under what authority he could ask me to delete the photos.
“He then said that under the Prevention of Terrorism Act he was quite within in his rights to confiscate my mobile phone without any explanation for taking photos within a public shopping centre, which seems an abuse of the act. He then said on this occasion he would allow me to keep the photos, but he wanted to take my full details.
“Name, place of birth, age, employment status, address. Had I not had my daughter with me, and the fact that we are trying to bring our daughter up to respect and trust police officers, I may have exercised my right not to provide those details. My view is that up until that stage the police were using powers their stop and account powers. I had done that so would have been within my rights not to give further details, however I chose to give the details.
“The police officer also said that the security guard was within his rights to now ask me to leave Braehead Shopping Centre and bar me from the premises which I was happy to oblige.
“Four things that are truly ridiculous the whole photo situation. How many people have taken photos of their children in Build-a-bear or on rides and attractions in Braehead? The police officer even thinking of making reference to the Prevention of Terrorism Act; wondering how many shoplifters got away while my act of terrorism was being dealt with; and the fact that i was clearly shopping and intended to continue shopping at a time when retail sales are at there lowest for over a decade. I guess Braehead shopping centre must be bucking the trend!
Of course, the events described were not the sort which warranted mention of anti-terrorism legislation; police are known to abuse their powers; and shopping centres can have dozy policies and idiotic security guards. So, although what Mr White tells us is alarming, none of the narrative’s constituent elements are inherently implausible.
Very quickly thousands of people accepted Mr White’s version of events and joined a Facebook group for a boycott of the shopping centre. Harsh criticisms– and sarcastic jokes – were made of the workers at the ice cream parlour, of the security guards,of the shopping centre generally for having such a non-photography policy, and of the supposed use by the police of their powers under anti-terrorism legislation. This outrage was then picked by the mainstream media as a perfect example of something or other having gone mad.
Within a couple of days it was clearly a public relations disaster for the shopping centre (see an excellent post here ). Eventually it announced a policy change and an apology of sorts. One suspects they just wanted the matter to go away quickly.
However, the police took a more cautious view of this mob criticism, initially stating only that it was investigating a complaint, and then yesterday making this extraordinary statement. The police said:
“It is because Mr White chose to seek publicity for his account of events and because of the planned demonstration that we feel compelled to take the unusual step of making our findings public.
“In reaching our conclusions, officers took statements from a number of independent witnesses and viewed the substantial amount of CCTV that was available in the centre.
“On reviewing all of this objective evidence, I have to tell you that we can find no basis to support the complaint which MrWhite has elected to make.
“The members of the public who asked for the security staff to become involved have told us that they did so for reasons which had absolutely nothing to do with him taking photographs of his daughter. They had a very specific concern, which I am not in a position to discuss publicly, that they felt the need to report. It was because of this very specific concern that security staff became involved. They were right to raise their concern and we are glad that they did so.
“The security staff were the ones who asked for police involvement. Again, this was not because Mr White said he had been photographing his daughter, but was due to the concerns that they themselves had regarding this particular incident.
“When our officers became involved they did not confiscate any items, nor was Mr White questioned under counter terrorist legislation. It is wrong to suggest that the police spoke to Mr White because he claimed he had been photographing his daughter, or that officers made any reference to counter terror legislation.Mr White knows, or ought to know, why our officers spoke with him.
“Since Mr White chose to publish his version of events on Facebook, we have seen substantial traditional media and social media activity around the story. People have been very quick to offer their opinions on this issue and were very keen to accept Mr White’s story as the only evidence that was available. Clearly this was not the case.
“Social media allowed this story to spread quickly around the world. I hope that the same media allows this part of the tale to move just as quickly.
“For the avoidance of any doubt, we have fully investigated this incident and we can say that none of the independent and objective evidence presented to us by either the members of the public or the CCTV backs up the claims made by Mr White.”
In the face of two such conflicting narratives, it is difficult to form an independent view as to what actually happened. On one hand there is the account of Mr White, written when his memory was quite fresh and without any evident reason to publicise the events other than his patent outrage. On the other hand, there is a lengthy police statement – based purportedly on “objective” evidence – rebutting most of what Mr White has said. Without access to that evidence the reader is left with one man’s word against that of the police. There is no clear picture.
But what is stark is that Mr White’s attempt to use social media – and then mainstream media – as the basis for complaining of his grievance has escalated to the police publishing to the world an alternative and, for Mr White, highly adverse account of the same events. And there are also other allegations being published on the internet, none of which seem completely well-sourced, and many of which appear defamatory.
So this has now become an unpleasant media fire-fight. On one level, it demonstrates the capacity of large numbers of people to be outraged at a perceived legal wrong when they only have one side of the story. It also shows the dangers of seeking to exploit social media to mount a campaign – as for every shopping centre that may issue a conciliatory press release, there may well be officials quite willing to make damaging public statements. And the police statement in this case is surely unsettling regardless of the merits of Mr White’s complaint: is it really the role of the police to make such damning statements on public websites in response to popular campaigns? What if the police get their facts horribly wrong – after all there has been no due process in an situation like this? Or was Mr White somehow asking for it by using media in the way he did?
There is no easy response to what happened other than to be more critical of one-sided social media and mainstream media accounts of when the law seems an ass, and perhaps to be more aware of how the State, when criticised, can retaliate.
David Allen Green is media correspondent of The Lawyer.