A free country?

“OI!” The shout drew my attention away from my viewfinder.A man was walking slowly towards me, a man who appeared to have been poured into his dark suit like an oversized Oddjob.

“OI!” The shout drew my attention away from my viewfinder.

A man was walking slowly towards me, a man who appeared to have been poured into his dark suit like an oversized Oddjob.

He was shaking his cropped head, waggling a pork-sausage finger at me.

“No photos,” he said. “You can't take pictures here.”

Excuse me? This was a public street I was on, barely a good spit from the Tower of London, where thousands of tourists take pictures every hour. Who exactly said I couldn't take photos - and why?

Apparently the owners of the nearby building decreed it, their reason (or their pretext) being the paranoid fear of “terrorism”. Though what threat to their safety I posed, wielding my digital SLR in a public place, I cannot imagine.

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In such confrontations you never think of what you should say until afterwards. I should have pointed out that I had just as much right to take photos there as they had to point their CCTV cameras at me, though I don't suppose it would have gone down well with Oddjob.

What kind of a society are we becoming, where taking photos of buildings is considered threatening behaviour, while the average person is filmed on CCTV about 30 times a day?

Has any British government presided over more curbing of public liberty than the present one? Maybe during wartime - but even then, I doubt it.

I read this week of plans to extend to other towns an experiment in Middlesbrough more Orwellian than anything yet dreamed up by Channel 4. Now not only will we be filmed as we go about our daily business, we'll be told off too.

Drop a piece of litter in Middlesbrough town centre within sight of a prying camera and a disembodied voice will ask you politely to pick it up. Ignore that and the politeness will be replaced by a firm order.

If you still disobey, what then? Well, they'll have your startled face on file, won't they?

With the cost of equipment and the wages of the poor, bored souls manning the screens and microphones, this will not come cheap.

Nevertheless, towns from Glasgow to Plymouth are apparently queueing up to join the Big Brother scheme.

It may cut down littering, but its only effect on real crime will be to move it around the corner out of sight of the cameras. If there is any more drearily depressing illustration of the way we now view each other, I can't immediately think of it.

Unless it's the ghastly move to make photographers carry ID cards.

At present, there is no right of privacy in a public place. Whatever Mr Oddjob might have thought, I was breaking no law by photographing his place of work.

If I'd taken his mugshot for my collection there would have been nothing legally he could do about it (in fact, I wish I had). His behaviour, though, was sadly typical of an attitude now rampaging through the land.

Despite a few mistaken reports to the contrary, there appears to be no official move as yet to restrict photographers' legal freedoms. But the climate of suspicion emanating from schools, parents, sports clubs and many businesses has put photographers' ID cards on the public agenda.

My name is now among more than 50,000 on an e-petition on the Downing Street website that states: “We the undersigned petition the prime minister to stop proposed restrictions regarding photography in public places.”

Professional photographer Simon Taylor, who started the petition, adds: “These moves have developed from paranoia and only promote suspicion towards genuine people following their hobby or profession.”

Of course, if your hobby or profession happens to involve terrorism or child pornography, it may be right that it should be curtailed. But that applies to the tiniest of tiny minorities of people, whether they happen to carry cameras or not.

If you're really worried about people taking photos that might invade your privacy, perhaps we should start considering a ban on mobile phones with cameras?

DOES signing a petition on a government website make any difference to anything in the real world? Quite possibly not.

I can't see the government backtracking on road-pricing, however many people use the petitions page to protest against it.

All petitions are essentially toothless, even in a democracy. But I don't think it can do any harm to let the government know how we feel.

Someone suggested I could do that better by writing to my MP, but I'm not sure that's the case.

For one thing my MP, John Gummer, isn't currently in the party of government. For another, signing an e-petition is a much quicker and easier way of getting my point registered.

The website also has another interesting aspect, which could prove highly useful.

It's the best and quickest way I've yet seen for ordinary folk like you and me to get our ideas noticed in Downing Street or Whitehall.

And it's just possible we might have the odd idea worth noticing.


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