NUJ supports journalists on conspiracy charge

On December 12 the National Executive Committee of the National Union of Journalists decided to sign up to the "Oxford declaration" which objects to the jailing of three editors of Green Anarchist - and to offer all assistance to Robin Webb who is to face the same charge. The following is the text submitted to the Journalist - a heavily revised version of which appeared in its January issue (which is why there was not a report in the paper Freelance).

Three editors are in prison, for reporting stories which didn't appear in the official media. Index on Censorship has posted extracts from those reports on the World-Wide Web in protest. And no, you have not accidentally turned to the foreign pages.

On November 15, Saxon Burchnall-Wood, Noel Molland, and Stephen Booth were each imprisoned for three years at Portsmouth crown court, for conspiring to incite readers of Green Anarchist to commit criminal damage. They will appeal. Simon Russell, editor of the Animal Liberation Front newsletter, was acquitted. Paul Rogers, another (alleged) Green Anarchist editor, will be tried later.

Animal Liberation Front Press Officer Robin Webb, an NUJ member, was originally on the charge sheet. Evidence against him was ruled inadmissible back in December 1996 -- because he had already been acquitted on it. The Crown Prosecution Service, extraordinarily, appealed that decision on November 19; judgement was reserved. Animal rights sympathisers and anarchists are united in the belief that the purpose of the trial was to get Webb. It came out of the same police operation as Webb's earlier trial (see Journalist April/May 1996). When Webb was arrested in January 1995, (then) Detective Sergeant Alan Betts told him "bail conditions have failed so we're going to lock you up to shut you up."

Hampshire police may or may not realise what an isolated target they ended up with in Webb's absence. Green Anarchist distributed at most 2000 copies. It is detested or derided by many green anarchists. The charitable view is that its editors over the years have been duped by the likes of Patrick Harrington -- a pseudo-ex-National-Front organiser who has read the Italian Marxist Gramsci, and decided to follow a "cultural agenda" to recruit politically unsophisticated greens. [Green Anarchist responds]

That isn't what the three were jailed for. The evidence against them was that Green Anarchist runs a News in Brief column called "community resistance" -- which is often the sole printed source of information on actions by animal liberationists. And it runs advertisements for pamphlets which describe ingenious forms of criminal damage. Shortly before the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, three editors have been jailed for reporting events which escaped the attention of the rest of the media.

Their trial, too, almost escaped the attention of the press. Its first day got short reports in the Independent, The Times and the Yorkshire Post. The verdict got nibs in the Guardian, the Independent and the Western Morning News. The honourable exceptions were a thoughtful pre-trial report by Nick Cohen in the Observer, and a Big Issue feature (picked up by Guardian Media) on the verdict.

Last week Saxon Wood wrote to the national direct action protest newsletter SchNEWS to say that copies sent to him had been returned by prison officers: "I am a Category B prisoner and can't get newspapers or sheets from the outside world, only from newsagents."

This is a difficult case. Freedom of speech and of the press, however, has never been dependent on the protagonists being nice or the issues easy. Since the Guardian and the New Statesman were Mandelsonised, a significant, disaffected and disobedient chunk of society is represented only by fringe and underground media. To criminalise these media is to extend the restrictions on Category B prisoners' reading to everyone.

Index on Censorship concludes: "If the day comes when the British press feel only able to tackle issues which won't inflame, won't enrage, won't draw cries of anger and shock from the establishment, then on that day dissent is dead. And with it dies freedom." The NUJ should support the appeal.

Index on Censorship is at http://www.oneworld.org/index_oc/

For weekly updates contact SchNEWS, PO Box 2600, Brighton, BN2 2DX and http://www.schNEWS.org.uk/.

Jan/Feb 1998

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