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Doing our job

RELATIONS between journalists and the police were the subject of the London Freelance Branch debate at the House of Commons on Monday 13 March. Do we need a positive right in law to free access for the purposes of journalism? The guidelines issued the week before by the Metropolitan Police are a great step forward - but how do we ensure that they are adhered to?

Lynne Featherstone, our host and Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, arrived at the meeting having just been told by the Party leadership that she will remain its spokesperson on police affairs. Before being elected to Parliament she had served on the London Police Authority.

Lynne recommended all journalists to see Good Night and Good Luck, the film about newsman Ed Murrow. Journalism, particularly investigative journalism, is all that stands between us and an authoritarian state - "you do sterling work and yes, I am trying to ingratiate myself".

But praise always comes with a "but". The public needs some protection from, for example, paparazzi.

She regards legislation as "too brutal" a remedy for such problems. "It isn't so much the guidelines or the laws that will solve problems," she observed: "for example the police do not necessarily observe guidelines. It has to be about education and training."

During her five years on the Metropolitan Police Authority Lynne "found that you have to be quite tough with the police - if they think they can get away with something they will do it."

She is not sure that either the police or journalists should be final arbiters of when journalists should or should not be stopped. Might there be a røle for an ombudsman figure to deal with disputes? Of course that won't help on the day. Accreditation of journalists and training for police will help on the day.

Brian Paddick is a Deputy Assistant Commissioner in the Metropolitan Police - one who gained rather a high profile when he was Commander in Lambeth and instructed officers not to waste time on arrests for cannabis possession but to focus on crimes that were priorities for the community. The Freelance suspects that what outraged his colleagues more than this was his willingness to discuss the community's priorities openly - with the community, for example on the Brixton-based bulletin board

Brian opened by noting that "it is bizarre when I am brought in to defend the police" - particularly at times when the force seems to be veering toward an authoritarian approach.

"I am not sure," he confessed, "whether the police do routinely disobey the law". But "If you have senior police officers who mean what they say, you should be able to get subordinates to obey."

He took issue with Lynne over whether the stopping of journalists is a deliberate effort by the police to restrict reporting. "There may be the isolated occasions when police officers don't want something reported - but more often it'll be a side-effect of officers' over-zealous effort to keep the area around an event or disturbance 'sterile'."

Journalists are the same as anyone else

Journalists are stopped or held under the same terms as anyone else. The Freelance had suggested that journalists being stopped under the Terrorism Act is an abuse of the Act. Just the previous week "the House of Lords came to my rescue" on this, when they ruled on a complaint brought against the Met by people who were stopped under the Act during protests against the DSEi (Defence Sales and Equipment international) arms fair - see Their Lordships confirmed that the Act's powers can be invoked where it is "expedient" thus it was lawful to stop and search even innocent people. Parliament knew what it was doing.

If we agree on nothing else, Brian suggested, "I am sure that you would agree that journalists are innocent people..."

The powers in the Act are not only about trying to discover and apprehend potential offenders, but also to deter and disrupt. Not long ago a friend of Brian's taking a picture on other side of the Thames from the Houses of Parliament. He was stopped by "pseudoplod" Community Support Officers under the Terrorism Act - why? Because of evidence from the United States of terrorists undertaking surveillance. "Clearly if you have a nice bit of camera equipment and you are taking pictures of a sensitive place..."

The Terrorism Act is also about reassuring the people: "if they see likely-looking people being stopped and searched it makes them feel safer."

As for the use of other laws, down to the mundanities of the Highways Act: "police officers are resourceful," Brian observed, "in their application of the law" in particular circumstances. "I would say," he declared, that "these are cases where officers thought journalists were in the way, not attempts to obstruct reporting."

Making guidelines work

And the Met had, of course, just announced guidelines on press- police relations - see the April Freelance.

"We have made it clear in the new guidelines," Brian reminded the meeting, "that officers have no power to seize cameras or photographs".

And "Thankfully arrests are rare - usually," he said, "there are aggravating circumstances" when this happens. As for the observation that officers seem to make a distinction "between freelances and 'the real press'" (groans from the audience) - "If you are penned in but you are carrying a big camera with 'BBC' writ large on the side, of course officers will recognise more rapidly that you are reporting."

How, though, to make sure that the guidelines are put into practice? The Branch had suggested that every police trainee should have a session with a journalists. That's "an interesting idea - I wish we could provide enough time for trainees to spend time with journalists, with members of minority groups, or with motorists. But the alarmingly short training period of 16 weeks doesn't allow time..."

What has happened is that the guidelines are published and are currently on the front screen of the Met intranet front screen. There will be a story in The Job (absolutely not to be called "Pravda"). They will be included in briefings for officers before events.

There appear to be some tabloid newspapers that have it in for the police in general and senior police in general - and one senior police officer in particular. "It's the scribblers who've created the bad feeling [from this] and it's not fair that the snappers get it in the neck."

Policing is difficult business, Brian reminded us - "police constables and Community Support Officers are often acting in highly charged situations with no immediate supervisor. To get them to abide by the guidelines we have to convince them it's the right thing to do.

"What I have to do in my limited time in the Force is to convince them it is the right thing to do."

If ever there was a situation in which we can't live with them and we can't live without them, it's that of the police and the media.

Jeremy Dear, the union's General Secretary, opened with a definition of "press freedom" from -

Freedom of the press is the guarantee by a government of free public press for its citizens and their associations, extended to members of news gathering organizations... It also extends to news gathering, and processes involved in obtaining information for public distribution.

It is not just the right to report, but the process of reporting that we are talking about.

"One thing that I knew when I first heard about this meeting was that we would all agree on the freedom of the press and the right of journalists to work without harassment within a democratic society," Jeremy said - "It is fine to have those principles, but the trouble is that they and the laws are not always upheld."

A sorry tale

For example, there has probably been no more important a time for journalism to be able to hold power to account than the "G8" summit in Scotland last July.

"But for many journalists," Jeremy said, "it was a sorry tale of the barriers that exist to free reporting." The NUJ had to make complaint about journalists being restricted to pens; being physically prevented from taking photos; and being beaten when trying to take pictures. It had complained to the Scottish forces involved about journalistic material being seized, for example film being removed from cameras, and about people being stopped and held in cars for four and a half hours and therefore missing deadlines.

Brian had just said he doesn't believe such actions are deliberate attempts to suppress free speech. "Whether deliberate or accidental, their effect is to suppress reporting."

Following the G8 there were raids on the BBC to seize material to use in evidence against protesters. That constitutes an attempt to involve journalist on the side of police and against demonstrators - and it therefore puts journalists in danger.

The same issues have come up at the Paddington rail crash, at the trials of Nick Griffin. Journalists may be detained under terror laws or highways laws or for aggravated trespass. There may be an apology afterwards - but then it's too late. The deadline has already been missed.

A firm welcome

"The NUJ welcomes," Jeremy declared, "the moves that Brian Paddick has been a key part of to introduce these guidelines." They're not before time - he quoted from announcements in September 2000 and May 2002 of new relationships between the police and journalists.

The experience of the BPPA (British Press Photographers' Association) and the CIoJ (Chartered Institute of Journalists) and the NUJ working together finally to get them agreed had been very positive.

"We do think these guidelines are vital," he repeated: "and we welcome your real commitment to putting them into practice."

To make that happen, we do need to have journalists involved in training. Photographers have already been to the Met Public Order training unit at Gravesend and been able to make suggestions on how work there can be improved. Apparently there are posters due to go out to police stations promoting the Press Card and the PIN number scheme for verifying it. We need more education for police officers - and it needs to deal with that question of identifying only a sub-set as "real journalists".

Jeremy was concerned that Brian had used the phrase "likely-looking people" to describe those stopped under the Terrorism Act. Innocent people are likely to be caught up. But journalists carry press cards: if we are detained it should be ever so briefly, while their card is checked. But that's not our experience. Whatever law people are detained under, if they can verify themselves with the Press Card, they should be let go.

He hoped that we and other journalists' organisations can work with the Met to sort out the problems - "for there will be problems."

Brian Paddick responded that he had said that in most cases the suppression of reporting is a side-effect of, for example, officers' over-zealous attempt to maintain a "sterile area". But he acknowledged that "there are unfortunately situations in which police officers overstep the mark - and we need a way to ensure that those officers are held to account."

"I do despair," he said, "at the behaviour of some of my colleagues. It was a challenge to get these guidelines agreed. Some senior officers who have more to do with Public Order than with media relations were not at all happy."

Who you gonna call?

So what could we do to monitor the effectiveness of the guidelines? "I have done this once before: my personal mobile phone number is..." And he gave members that number: "If you find that police officers are not abiding by the guidelines, call me."

Lynne Featherstone interjected to point out that powers to stop people under the Terrorism Act are wider in an area that has been "designated" under the Act, and "the whole of London has been designated since the Act came in." Brian responded that designation had actually happened later, and that the House of Lords had found that the designation was justified in detail.

Jeff Moore of the BPPA reported that he had already shown the guidelines to a police officer with whom he was having a bit of a disagreement. The officer "said something very uncomplimentary about Brian Paddick and three the paper to the ground". Brian responded that "at the end of the day, yes, some officers would be adverse to guidelines." But, he emphasised, though they are not the law they "are like the Highway Code: if an officer arrests someone having failed to follow the guidelines, that is clear evidence that they have overstepped the mark."

Broadcaster Pennie Quinton reported that she had been filming for Indymedia at the DSEi protests - and had been a plaintiff in the case against police decided in the House of Lords. A policewoman had grabbed her camera out of her hands. Pennie had offered her her Press Card, but no attempt had been made to verify her name. Pennie had repeatedly asked under what law she was being held, and received answers to the effect of "I'll think of something". After 20 minutes she had been searched, then arrested under Section 20 of the Terrorism Act. How can this be right?

Brian responded: "We've got to teach them about the Press Card. Unfortunately there are colleagues of mine who feel that to protect the reputation of the police... they have to cover things up... even if you secure evidence of police behaving inappropriately."

Our Chair Dave Rotchelle asked whether there is a clear disciplinary procedure to invoke in such cases. Brian replied that "it is very important to secure a witness" - this provoked some giggles from outrageously cynical members - and "if you feel you have been treated wrongly you should make a formal complaint," presumably to the Independent Police Complaints Commission,

Past NUJ Deputy General Secretary Jacob Ecclestone reminded the meeting how "remarkable it is that someone as senior as Deputy Assistant Commissioner Paddick should be here" - in Jacob's fifty years of involvement in the NUJ "no-one this senior in the Met has ever met with us, and we thank him for that and for his very straightforward commentary."

Who works for whom?

Jacob continued on a philosophical note: "William Wilberforce said that the presence of journalists in the courts was valuable to the administration of justice because it kept the judges under scrutiny. The function of journalists on the streets - however violent or unpleasant the circumstances for all parties - is to keep the police under scrutiny. When you act on behalf of the state... I see you screwing up your face at that..."

Brian responded that he had set out his views on who he works for very clearly on - particularly in the archived "threads" of discussion at and at - the latter including the famous quote about the concept of anarchism. "The constitutional position should be," he summarised, "that we are accountable to the public, and..." he noted his press officer taking notes "...and you'll have to buy my book when it comes out!"

Paul Steward of the CIoJ observed that we are all working on behalf of the public. Freelance Organiser John Toner reiterated the importance of the BPPA, CIoJ and NUJ having worked together on this issue; this co-operation was a major reason why the Met had listened.

Photographer David Hoffman asked what can be done in training to reinforce the guidelines at the level of Inspectors and Sergeants - "those who set the tone for those who put hands on us". Shouldn't the guidelines at least be part of Public Order training for all officers - since those are the situations where there is most likely to be laying on of hands? And shouldn't this be repeated regularly - especially given Brian's comments about opposition from senior officers?

Brian said that the guidelines would be included in six-monthly refresher courses for Sergeants and Inspectors. Further, they would be included in every Public Order refresher course.

Some of the opposition to the guidelines had been on the lines of "well, anyone can get a Press Card". But "we have been able to convince them. The guidelines are accepted and these senior officers have no choice but to implement them."

Branch member Alice Josephs asked whether it would be possible to have a wallet-sized card with a bullet-point summary of the guidelines. Apparently these are already in the works, with each side setting out what should be expected of police and of journalists.

Photographer Molly Cooper asked about an incident when she had been photographing peace activist Milan Rai being arrested for breaching the new law forbidding acts of protest within the vicinity of Parliament. She had offered a police officer her Press Card and had been given a standard "desist from protest in this area" leaflet instead. Brian observed that "That legislation causes us endless entertainment... but the guidelines apply whether you are covering events near Parliament or anywhere else."

Investigative journalist Satish Sekar asked, more generally, what could be done to encourage police forces to be more helpful towards those looking into miscarriages of justice - as, for example, his articles and book on the "Cardiff Three", now freed. Brian thought that "asking officers involved in the initial investigation to assist in such an endeavour would be like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas" - but in general he agreed that the police could benefit from more transparency. It would help "if we weren't hung, drawn and quartered in the media when we do admit a mistake."

In conclusion

Summing up, Jeremy Dear said that the guidelines were a very welcome development, and thanked Brian for his røle in getting them agreed, as well as John Toner and our colleagues from BPPA and CIoJ. He hoped that Brian would be around long enough to see them implemented, and that we could set up procedures for monitoring their effectiveness.

How would Brian Paddick know how well the guidelines were working? "By the number of times this phone rings," he said.

He noted that this was an issue - like so many in policing - that can only be addressed when senior officers are seriously committed to tackling it. Police officers are, as one would hope, very good at detecting people who are saying one thing and thinking another: "until we have senior police officers who genuinely believe that openness is necessary, it is going to be very difficult to make the challenging cultural changes that it requires.

"While I am in the Force," he continues, "I am committed to change on this, and on other thorny issues such as stop and search. There need to be senior police officers coming up through the ranks who take openness and democracy seriously."

Lynne Featherstone thought this had "hit the nail on the head - it is all about the commitment of senior police officers, and there is only one Brian Paddick."

The mobile number that Brian Paddick gave members went with the job he was doing and stopped working when he was transferred a few weeks after the meeting.
[Site map] Posted: 20 Mar 2006; modified: 19 July 2006 - © 2006 contributors
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