Manchester man arrested for alleged sewer-grate photography, held as a terrorist

Still think that if you're innocent, you have nothing to fear from surveillance and control laws? Have a look at this news-video about Stephen Clarke, a man who was accused to taking pictures of sewer-gratings in Manchester and arrested. Though the police couldn't find any photos of sewer-gratings on his phone (and even though "what a sewer grating looks like" isn't a piece of specialized terrorist intelligence), he was held on suspicion of planning an act of terror, imprisoned for two days while the police searched his home, his phone and his computer. When they couldn't find anything suspicious, they released him, but kept his DNA on file, as the biometric of someone who had been accused of plotting a terrorist act.

what happened to me


  1. I know this didn’t happen in my country, but I pledged another $25 to the ACLU tonight just in case.

  2. He’s lucky. Normally they shoot ’em in the head for that kind of malfeasance. I mean, if it’s on the subway.

  3. I don’t understand what is happening in Britain these days. I don’t understand how the notion that cameras are dangerous! became such a deep-seated and unquestioned fundamental axiom (at least on the part of many) so quickly.

    Yesterday the Guardian ran a short video about London’s CCTV network, and I was amazed at how much time the operators spent using this system to hunt out and profile photographers. Sure, they talked about looking for drug deals also, but a fair chunk of this was on photographer hunting. Of course any minute spent following around a photographer is a minute that you are not looking for, you know, criminals, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone in the clip. Nobody was laughing about this either; they were all very serious about how they keep an eye out for unlawful photographers.

    How does this kind of nonsensical paranoia happen en masse to a culture? I certainly would have never predicted it happening 10 years ago, and I can only assume it will look ridiculous from the standpoint of history.

  4. Ouh, you guys clearly don’t get it, he has a beard, that Obviously means he’s a terrorist!

    If you’re in doubt of what logic to use, just watch Monty Python’s Holy Grail again and substitute Witch for Terrorist, then you’ll get it!

  5. I’m glad that they led this with “Manchester…”, that way I didn’t have to hold my breath dreading to read the US state in which it happened.

    I know that people in American glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, but man, England’s got some real troubles.

  6. Well the EU courts have already decided that keeping dna for someone not convicted is illegal, but we are yet to see the uk government response to that.

    Its important to note that the the CCTV network over here wasn’t a reaction to 9/11, it was a reaction to IRA terrorism, you know, back when it was fashionable for Americans to support terrorist groups. Oh how times have changed!

  7. A telling remark at the end when the operative says he loves “police, camera action” tv shows. Mmmm, big surprise.
    I’m so glad that gazillions is being spent on gathering “intel” about aggressive beggars…. FFS.

  8. The freedom of people to take photographs in public is a reliable indication of how far a government is from a totalitarian police state.
    Britain is plummeting into the black hole, already past the US, approaching Zimbabwe soon.
    I would not want to go there anymore.

  9. @nosehat: Well, I certainly hope that it will *not* ridiculous from the standpoint of history because “remember when people were allowed to have cameras of their own. Man those were dangerius times” talk in the future.

    I just don’t get the British in this regard. They apparently oppose and ID card scheme (goof for them, as a German I don’t mind our system too much) but allow themselves to be monitored 24/7, have their data lost on USB sticks and almost total disarmament.

  10. I have never been to Britain, but the rate at which this trend is advancing, you would expect that they had been the victim of some large scale attack, scaring the public into compliance.

  11. Hm. Maybe this increasing paranoia is actually a pro photographer lobby conspiracy to revert the profession to its exclusive state- when owning and using a camera wasn’t as simple as going round the corner to the electronics store, or in some countries, the pharmacy or newsagents (horror!). Aha! Eventually anyone who wants to practice the Art will have to register and apply for a permit- thus all the point-and-shoot bearing, photoshop addicted troglodytes will be banished from the temple of photography, once again a sanctuary reserved for Real Professionals.


    Or else it’s just another case of a snowballing fear of nothing at all. We should be careful not to start believing in it, someday, just because authorities keep repeating it.

    Funny that it reminds me of stories my parents tell about the martial law I was too young to remember well. It wasn’t a case of being innocent. They could arrest for anything, or for nothing, and completely ruin your life just by treating you as a suspect.

  12. even though “what a sewer grating looks like” isn’t a piece of specialized terrorist intelligence

    The police have been obsessed with ‘sewer gratings’ for some time, presumably because they think someone might plant a bomb in one. The queen visited a town near me about ten years ago, and about a week before, all the drain covers had special rubber & metal seals put on them; these were inspected again just before the visit.

  13. @13 Beanolini: Maybe they were less worried about bombs, and more worried about an enterprising subterranean paparazzo going for a Royal up-skirt photograph?

    Hey, I just figured it out. There’s a deep-seated collective guilt over Princess Di’s death… a death largely due to: Paparazzi! The subconscious lesson is that irresponsible camera use can be deadly. This current British camera paranoia is just a form of mass penance.


  14. As a UK photographer, the frequency of this type of story is beginning to depress me. Excuse me while I go in search of a unicorn chaser. Something that’ll make me UK happy.

  15. Due to many other events such as this one, I have categorically crossed England off of my list of vacation spots. No joke.

  16. Both, the reporter and Mr Clarke, are at pains to point out that he didn’t take any photographs and no photos were found on his phone or computers. As if that was relevant at all! It completely misses the point that taking photos in a public space, be it of manhole covers, buildings, people or dog poo is not a criminal activity and shouldn’t excite any police officer or CCTV operator at all!

  17. There are more and more of these stories being reported – but most of them never make the news. If you really are taking pictures, or are taking pictures whilst simultaneously being asian-looking – then things can get even worse.

    Read this guy’s story:

    Even the ex-head of MI5 has been saying recently that Britain is heading for a police state… it’s probably time that even the cynics start taking some notice when people like Stella Rimington are getting worried.

  18. “I would not want to go there anymore.”

    Please don’t be put off coming to the UK because of incidents like this.

    This is an absurd and disturbing trend, but one that is getting more and more publicity in press and politics.

    Check out the current broohaha over the Convention on Modern Liberty, a coalition of right- and left-wing groups and pundits discussing how to reclaim human rights and liberties in the UK. It’s interesting to see the different focuses – some blame anti-terror laws (generally left-wing) and government paranoia/control for the loss of liberties. Others blame the UK Human Rights Act (generally the right-wing) for granting human rights to criminals and illegal immigrants while allowing the government to use the same document to attack the liberties of “good, honest, hard working families” or whathaveyou.

    By the way:

    AMERICANS! UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown is in the United States at the moment. Maybe you could express some of the UK’s collective anger and concern on our behalf? He won’t listen to us…

  19. I had a conversation with an off duty copper from the BTP a few nights ago which went roughly along the following lines:

    Me: “What do you think about people taking photographs in railway stations?”

    Him: “It’s WRONG”

    Me: “Why?”

    Him: “Because it say so in the prevention of terrorism act”

    Me: “So are people going on holiday and taking photos of each other at the railway station with their cameraphones really terrorists”

    Him: “It doesn’t matter, it’s still wrong. I’d stop people whatever kind of camera they are using”

    Me: “So do you think you have a right to cease equipment then”

    Him: “Yes, under the Data Protection Act” (I kid you not)

    Me: “That has to be complete bullshit – I bet it doesn’t say anything of the sort”

    Him: “Yes it does”

  20. “Both, the reporter and Mr Clarke, are at pains to point out that he didn’t take any photographs and no photos were found on his phone or computers. As if that was relevant at all!”

    Well I think it is relevant, since it makes two cases of stupidity instead of one: a)the man was arrested for doing something which is not a crime when b) he did not do the thing he was arrested for in the first place. Double the paranoia!

  21. Oh, as usual, I hate to be a pedant, but could people stop using “England” and “Britain” and “the UK” interchangeably?

    They’re not the same thing.

  22. @13strong – your pedantry is unjustified here.

    when people say things like
    “why is this happening in Britain”, or
    “Why is this happening in the UK”, or
    “Why is this happening in England”

    all of those are totally (and doubly) correct.
    Firstly because Manchester is in The UK, GB, England.
    Secondly because the legal stance which make this insanity possible affects the GB, the UK, and England equally.

    therefore your pedantry is misplaced.

  23. I’d just like to point out to irregular readers of BB that the photo-phobia madness is not unique to the UK. BB has covered instances of it in the US as well. I’d prefer to think we caught it from the US than the other way around, but it’s probably a folie à deux.

  24. My wife and I have decided England has become to Big Brother for us, so our next vacation is going to be in Germany.

    Think about that one for a second.

  25. This whole ‘brutal police state slowly infringing on the rights of people and then punishing when they resist’ sounds kind of like the reasons why the US seceded from the Empire..

    This is what you get when your principle legal document is the MAGMA CARTA.

    Sounds like V for Vendetta. What’s next? Fingermen? Sounds like that’s happening already.


    I’ll raise your pedantry…

    Scotland and Northern Ireland have entirely separate legal systems from each other and from England and Wales.

    It does not follow that what is legal in one country is legal or illegal in another.

    The most well know example is that abortion is illegal in NI, but legal in England, Scotland and Wales.

    Scotland’s legal system is significantly different in the area of judicial process. Court’s may return one of three verdicts for instance: guilty, not guilty and not proven. To be even more pedantic “Danelaw” still has legal weight in Orkney and Shetland…but that mostly affects property rights.

  27. You are all missing this point, the Police had good reason to arrest this man!

    He has a beard for heavens sake – in the eyes of our UK Police state having a beard = looking like a terrorist.

  28. They’ve just created the perfect way to plot an act of terrorism:

    1) Get decoys to carry cameras openly and shoot photos in public areas.

    2) Have your real spotters walk around unfettered gathering intel about your target while the authorities harangue / surveil the photographers.

    No one has ever proven that any real terrorists used photography to plot an act of terrorism. This is purely Hollywood. Do you have to even speculate about the real agenda of all this when the CCTV cameras cover every inch of public city and yet ordinary people are not allowed to use cameras in public places or photograph the police? The right to bear cameras surely should be protected by law in a just and free society.

  29. #28, Gidim:

    Scotland and Northern Ireland have entirely separate legal systems from each other and from England and Wales.

    And don’t forget the Isle of Man; it’s not part of the UK or the EU, despite being one of the British Isles. UK law does not apply here, except when it does. Similarly the Channel Islands are not part of the British Isles, though they are British Islands.

    #27, TarlSS:

    If you’re not sure of how something’s spelt, it’s unwise to draw attention to it.

  30. I distinctly remember that I used to have a certain fondness for Britain once. Now I hate it. The common sense that used to compensate for the absence of a proper constitution has been replaced by the organized paranoia of a true police state. I won’t set foot there again, not even for transfer flights.

  31. What sort of people have an interest in getting potential witnesses with their cameras off the street? How much luck will they have in a world where cameras on phones are ubiquitous?

  32. He got off lucky. Remember the Gilford Four? Police falsifying documents, jailing and torturing a whole family, just so the new Terrrorist
    Act at that time, would look like it did its job and kept England safe.

    Of course we know, the cops lied and innocent citizens where incarcerated. Free society? Yeah right, the Communists laugh at us daily as we blindly think we live in open democratic society.

  33. I, for one, am glad the diligent UK coppers are protecting us from these Godless sewer-grate-photographing terrorists! We’re all safe now!

  34. mrkiscaden @26 – I’ll go you one more than that one.

    In 2005, my daughter and I were watching TV in a European country and they had a little feature where you could SMS to a number and your message would scroll across the screen. She thought that was neat, and thought a bit. Then she said, “So I could write in there ‘Bush is stupid?'” I grinned and nodded. Then she said, “And they’d let me?”

    I realized that criticism of the government in America was no longer as obvious a freedom as it was in … wait for it … Hungary.

  35. This all seems to happen in a vacuum – no MPs being quoted on it, no big debates in Parliament. Is there anything political being done about this, or is it just citizens versus police?

  36. Someone versed in UK law please explain: How can such a law get on the books if no one is stepping up to own it and push it through?

  37. “Accused terrorist” . . . a lot of wing nuts accused Obama of being a terrorist, so I guess he better watch out when he finally gets over to the UK.

  38. As far as I can tell, it’s just Jacqui Smith on BBC Newsnight repeating patiently, as if to a child, that the government is confident that it is correctly balancing personal liberty with a modern society’s security needs.

  39. re-post then

    There’s something happening here
    What it is ain’t exactly clear
    There’s a man with a gun over there
    Telling me I got to beware
    I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
    Everybody look what’s going down
    There’s battle lines being drawn
    Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
    Young people speaking their minds
    Getting so much resistance from behind
    I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
    Everybody look what’s going down
    What a field-day for the heat
    A thousand people in the street
    Singing songs and carrying signs
    Mostly say, hooray for our side
    It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
    Everybody look what’s going down
    Paranoia strikes deep
    Into your life it will creep
    It starts when you’re always afraid
    You step out of line, the man come and take you away
    We better stop, hey, what’s that sound
    Everybody look what’s going down
    Stop, hey, what’s that sound
    Everybody look what’s going down
    Stop, now, what’s that sound
    Everybody look what’s going down
    Stop, children, what’s that sound
    Everybody look what’s going down

  40. Wow. When I was studying for an art degree in Manchester, I spent about 3 months taking photos of pavements and grids. I still have a whole shoebox full of these photos in the wardrobe in my spare room, never realised they were in any way incriminating. Perhaps I’d better burn them?

  41. Um…why didn’t they arrest the news film crew showing “how” the police go into the sewers. I know now. I’m sure some “kids” are building the tripod winch with hook/halter now.

  42. what is monumentally frightening is that they banged him up incommunicado while they searched through his home, computer etc.

    A US prosecution after finding nothing terrorism related might have brought charges relating to anything else they found while carrying out this search… well, he must have been guilty of something…

    I’m very surprised he didn’t get any other charges laid on him as a result of things that might have turned up on the computer… the new “extreme porn” laws mean it’s very hard to avoid potentially illegal images… and how can you prove all the images on your computer are legal… you may have bath time shots of your kids when they were young… I’ve got loads of images of my kids when they were young that could be deemed suspect by someone determined to lay charges against me.

  43. The UK is becoming a police state? The UK is a police state. The ruling party, which has spent millions deploying cameras everywhere is now clamping down on the public performing its own surveillance. Speculation is not even necessary, it only serves one purpose. Can’t have the watchmen being watched in a police state after all.

    This is how little by little, a centimeter was given, and a kilometer was lost. This is how for the promise of safety and security we ended up with neither.

    Realistically speaking, you won’t be killed by a terrorist, but being detained or beaten by the police is now a very, very real possibility. Especially if you step out of line.

    Perhaps the United Kingdom’s place in the world is to serve as a warning to other free thinking people of what happens when we trade the promise of safety for the right of freedom.

    God help us all.

  44. Hello, Subjects of The United Kingdom? Please pay attention.

    You’re ALL living in The Village right now. You are ALL numbers.

    You have a choice.

    You may remain numbers. Or, You can be Number 6.

    The choice is yours. Choose wisely.

  45. The perils of tired surfing – my posting above should have gone on the Guardian website somewhere – feel free to ignore.

  46. It’s ironic really – you can get arrested for (not) taking pictures of sewer grates in the UK, but then the government gives you an online guided tour of Number 10 Downing Street. It makes no sense, but that’s the way it is in the UK now..

  47. it’s all about obedience and fear – and the eventual abandonment of elections. “What’s the point?”

    Why kind of country do you want your children to grow up in?

  48. The day before the last Labour conference in Manchester I was stopped and questioned by a policewoman for taking photographs. I wasn’t surprised- I was taking photos of the security perimeter around the G-Mex and I had made it as far as the foot of the steps up to the main entrance after all.

    She called my name in to the control room and no doubt they ran it through some incomplete and inaccurate database. I’m probably down as a man who loiters around political events now, but nothing else happened. I didn’t push my luck by going any further into the cordon.

  49. #10 peterbruells. “Remember when people were allowed to have cameras of their own. Man those were dangerous times.”

    The Wild West. Anarchy. People takin’ photography into their own hands. Camera slingers. Uncontrolled imagery. Loose clicks sink ships.

    Funny how many people infer Britain is worse than the U.S.–maybe because of the number of reports we get through Cory Doctorow?

  50. @#23
    Oh, as usual, I hate to be a pedant, but could people stop using “England” and “Britain” and “the UK” interchangeably?

    They’re not the same thing.

    Only if Brits stop refering to the United States of America as “America.”

    America inclues countries from Canada all the way down to Argentina.

    “The U.S.” works just fine for me.


  51. I think cops either get their ideas from briefings that have nothing to do with the law, or from rumors between cops.

    A lot of people seem to download their beliefs from the news every night.

  52. @#37
    In 2005, my daughter and I were watching TV in a European country and they had a little feature where you could SMS to a number and your message would scroll across the screen. She thought that was neat, and thought a bit. Then she said, “So I could write in there ‘Bush is stupid?'” I grinned and nodded. Then she said, “And they’d let me?”

    I realized that criticism of the government in America was no longer as obvious a freedom as it was in … wait for it … Hungary.

    Wow. I’m not an admirer of the Bush administration but this is just ideologically fueled fantasy.

    George Washington was right. People can’t handle a two party system. Dualities make it too easy for them to dream up stupid shit.

  53. CCTV was not put up in response to the IRA.

    Other ID schemes are not linked to a database with all your info on linked together – big big difference between proposed UK one & elsewhere. They’ve already started rolling it out on asylum-seekers & non-EU residents.

    US citizens somehow holding us responsible for the attacks on civil liberties here are a bit rich: a) we don’t blame you for what your government does, otherwise I’d have long since stopped talking to any of you! b) the US scans everyone’s retinas to enter the country, and under the Patriot Act the government has access to what books you borrow from the library, amongst many other invasions of civil liberties, etc.

  54. And we criticize Vlad for his bashful ways of practicing democracy. What side are you on? Anyway we need another revolution ‘cause EU standards are just not enough to change ‘quality of life.’

  55. I live in a city full of bizarre sewer coverings. They are fun to take photos of…. They would find them all over my flikr account, let alone my phone. This is a crime? With such harsh punishment? Egads.

  56. Maybe they should take Google Earth and Maps of the internet, ban people with paper and pencils suspiciously sketching anything and in’terror’gate people they under suspicion of having a photographic memory… I’m so glad I don’t live in the UK anymore, how it has gone downhill in 15 years, awful…

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