British Journal of Photography
5 October 2005

Walter Wolfgang wasn’t the only Labour Party conference visitor to make an unexpected exit last week. Diane Smyth tells why photographers staged their own walkout

Accredited photographers at last week’s Labour Party conference were forced to take direct action to ensure that all 47 got access to the floor during the Prime Minister’s speech.

The photographers, most of whom had applied for accreditation months before the conference, were told four hours before the speech that only 30 floor passes would be handed out for Tony Blair’s slot, and no access would be given to the balcony in the conference room. The photographers were invited to put their names on a list in the pressroom, but when the passes were handed out they found that the 17 excluded were freelancers and local press photographers.

‘When I went up to get my pass, I was told, “if you’re name’s not on the list, you’re not getting in”,’ Richard Pohle told BJP. ‘Then when I said I was with The Times, I was told that we would only get one (between two photographers). It kept changing and changing, until eventually they would only let the big publications in and people working on papers like the Brighton Argus were left out.’

Unhappy with what they saw as this unfair distribution of passes, the photographers decided to refuse to take any photographs at all unless everyone got passes. Getty Images staffer Peter Macdiarmid went into the conference hall to get the photographers then shooting Home Secretary Charles Clarke’s speech, and the mass walk-out that ensued forced a meeting between the photographers, the Labour Party press office and the conference floor manager.

‘All the photographers came out of the back of the conference centre and we were saying that we would all put our cameras on the floor together and have a photograph of us with our cameras down,’ says Daily Telegraph photographer Eddie Mulholland. ‘Then a press officer came out and said, “Okay, everyone can have access to the floor and balcony”.’

‘Negotiating was getting us nowhere so all the photographers got together,’ says Macdiarmid. ‘It was amazing to see everyone stick together. It doesn’t always happen, but everyone was quite happy with the situation.’

The photographers conceded that the floor was busy for Blair’s speech, but were not convinced by suggestions that the party press office needed to restrict passes for health and safety reasons.

‘We were all allowed on the floor to photograph Gordon Brown the day before,’ pointed out Macdiarmid. ‘There were slightly more photographers on the floor for Blair and it was tight but we managed. We’re used to working in close quarters.’

Macdiarmid added that if space were restricted, it would have been fairer to ensure that at least one photographer from each paper had a pass, instead of giving national papers all the passes they wanted at the expense of freelancers and local newspaper photographers. And John Toner, freelance organiser at the National Union of Journalists, put it more starkly still, stating: ‘There is no justification – if they are short on space, they need a bigger venue.

‘It’s scandalous,’ he added. ‘We will be taking the issue up with the Labour party as soon as we can. We want to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.’

BJP contacted the Labour Party conference for comment, but none was forthcoming as the magazine went to press.

– Meanwhile, outside the conference, police officers stopped both Austin Mitchell, Labour MP and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Photography Group, and Jeff Moore, chairman of the British Press Photographers’ Association, from taking pictures.

Mitchell’s photographs of the conference were deleted from his camera altogether, while Moore was given a stop and search notice. ‘I wasn’t actually trying to take any photographs, I was just standing outside the conference centre with my camera,’ says Moore. ‘A police officer came up to me and said: “You’re not allowed to take any pictures here. Tony Blair doesn’t like pictures being taken of the conference in progress or of the Grand Hotel.” ‘I replied: “Oh really, which law is that under?” She didn’t admit she was wrong, and she eventually gave me a stop and search form, giving her grounds for interview as “taking photographs of the conference” – which I wasn’t.

‘The BPPA has regular meetings with Bob Cox, the Met’s chief press officer about better press/police relations. Things were going well until 07 July, but they are now as bad as I have ever seen them.’