Police threaten press freedom

Members of the broadcasting union BECTU and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) are increasingly reporting a serious threat to press freedom. Over the past year, there has been an emergence of police using their powers of stop-and-search to harass members of the press covering demonstrations and, equally worryingly, incidents of police filming reporters and TV crews carrying out their lawful occupation.

Aggressive police behaviour was observed at the Kingsnorth climate camp in summer 2008 where activists had gathered to protest against the expansion of the power station. There was a great deal of media interest. Alarmingly, media workers were subjected to stop-and-search going into and leaving the protest. Ian Axton, presenter for the ITV regional news programme Meridian Tonight, and his film crew were targeted by police. ‘It was intimidating and totally unnecessary’, Axton said. ‘I had my press card which they examined, but it made no difference’. The search lasted 20 minutes and the police then turned on his film crew. ‘This was the first time in 38 years that I have been searched’, Axton said. The news-gatherers were handed pink slips stating that they were searched on ‘suspicion of being equipped to cause criminal damage’. The search took place under section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which requires police to give a reason for the search. They were all also photographed.

Mark Vallee, a freelance photographer at the climate camp, was also searched for the first time in his career. He wonders if police tactics were aimed at delaying journalists so they would miss their deadlines. Jason Parkinson, an experienced video journalist with 15 years in the industry, added: ‘We drove a few miles to McDonald’s and were filing our material on their WiFi and noticed five police officers outside the window with notebooks and video cameras filming us’! All the media workers involved were carrying official press cards approved by the Association of Chief Police Officers. If these cards are routinely ignored by the police, what is the point of issuing them?

Aggressive police tactics and officers without shoulder numbers are nothing new to veteran activists from the miners’ strike, Wapping and the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy of the 1980s, but it now seems the media are on the receiving end. The police are simply using the powers given to them by the Labour government: Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 allows a search to take place without any requirement for reasonable suspicion. Activists report that these powers are regularly abused. Under Section 44, the rise in the number of black and Asian Londoners stopped and searched since July 2005 is 354 per cent.

Unfortunately for the police, in the age of digital cameras and mobile phones, everyone is a potential news-gatherer, so the chances of them getting away with it are diminished, as the exposure of police involvement in the death of Ian Tomlinson at this year’s G20 protests showed.

Jon Green

FRFI 209 June / July 2009


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