Only doing our job!

RELATIONS between journalists and the police will be the subject of the London Freelance Branch debate at the House of Commons on Monday 13 March - with the Met's Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Paddick and NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear kicking off, so to speak. See here for details.

EVERYONE will say they support free reporting in the media. Practically everyone will agree that this involves journalists having free access to news events as they happen - and the freedom to get words and pictures out to meet deadlines.

Members keep telling the NUJ that these fine principles are not always put into practice on the streets - particularly, but not only, in "public order situations". Of course this affects photographers more than most, since scribblers have the option of standing well back and snappers don't.

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It's all right for some - a Met Forward Intelligence Team photographer with police escort at a 2002 Afghan war protest.

Some have been stopped and questioned under the Terrorism Act, which is dramatic and on the face of it an abuse of the purpose of that Act. But being stopped under some placid byway of the Highways Act can have the same effect of suppressing free reporting of that public order situation. It can have as much of a chilling effect as the more dramatic cases where cameras, films, digital image cards or notebooks are seized or the journalist is actually arrested. If a journalist is made to miss a deadline, then their words or pictures never reach the public.

Essential unconventional

We face another difficulty: police officers' perceptions of who counts as "the media". Having observed police Public Order training in which a crew of suited and booted staff journalists were taking part, complete with crash helmets, makes it easier to see why officers on the ground are apt to "sort" journalists into "real press" and... well, freelances.

This division is false: it does not reflect the reality of the media and certainly hinders free reporting. Yes, a crew with BBC-emblazoned cameras are readily identifiable as "serious media" and a Press Association reporter may be so: but photographs for the national papers are overwhelmingly taken by freelances.

A photographer working for the Times may look identical to a photographer submitting pictures to the Indymedia newswire. In fact the same person may do both on different days.

And as soon as one considers the possibility of a police officer deciding that the Times is a "proper" news source and Indymedia is not, the dangers of that division become apparent. Any person seeking to report under the ethics of journalism, conventional or not, should have equal access. In a public order situation, those ethics of course include maintaining independence both of the police and of protesters.

Do we need new law?

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) introduced safeguards on seizure of journalistic material - what it calls "special procedure material". The Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 introduced an obligation to return such material "as soon as reasonably practicable" - but the general problem here is that a news or photo editor's definition of "soon" is much more stringent than that of the officer in charge of an investigation - often "the next half hour" as compared to "some time next month".

These are essentially negative rights - partial limitations to general powers granted to the police. And they cover only "materials", such as notes or photos, not the ability to be present to make those.

Do we need a positive right to free access for the purposes of journalism? Incorporating such a positive right in law would be a long way round to making sure that every police officer was made aware of it - but an effective one.

  • If you want to bring someone who is not a Branch member, get in touch first
  • Please arrive at the Public Gallery entrance by 6:45 to allow time for security checks
 
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