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Arrested then fined for doing his job

THE MARCH BRANCH meeting heard from Andy Aitchison, who was arrested in his kitchen on suspicion of criminal damage after photographing a protest at Napier Barracks. This military camp in Folkestone, Kent is used to accommodate hundreds of asylum seekers.

Andy Aitchison

Andy Aitchison at our virtual meeting

"The people there are living in really awful conditions," he reminded us. Three days before the meeting, for example, the Independent editorialised that the immigration authorities ignoring a Public Health England warning about the lack of ability to social distance in the dormitories was "a disgrace".

This was a huge story, Andy said:"a story that moved in literally a few minutes from my house." For months there have been demonstrations outside - and "sometimes there's a demo by the people inside. The conditions inside the barracks need to be addressed as a matter of urgency."

Protest photo

The scene outside Napier Barracks on 28 January

He showed us the above photo of the scene on 28 January.

When the police arrived to arrest him in his kitchen, seven hours after the demo that he photographed had taken place, he showed his NUJ press card and said he had been there working. The arresting police officer said "can't do much with that, mate" and carried on. "The Press Card made absolutely no difference to their behaviour when they came into my house," Andy said.

Andy was charged with causing the alleged criminal damage he was photographing and released on bail, to report to a police station on 22 February. Bail conditions meant he was not allowed at the barracks. The next day a fire broke out there - he could smell the smoke in his garden. He knew something was kicking off there because he could hear the sirens - but couldn’t go to photograph it.

A week later, he reported, "after a lot of support from the union, other journalists, legal professionals, and MPs discussing my case in the House of Commons, the case was dropped. With a bit of persuasion from my wife, I went straight back the barracks" - it seemed important to keep up the coverage and not be cowed.

A week after that Andy received a fixed penalty notice - a fine for breaching covid regulations. By then, thanks to the NUJ, solicitors at Bindmans were acting for him. "I read the notice to them and they could not believe the wording used - the notice specified that "you were there taking photos as a freelance journalist". It took another week and "a good strong letter from Bindmans to Kent Police to get a letter back from the chief lawyer of Kent Police saying the penalty charge had been issued erroneously before it was dropped."

Andy is "now taking a civil case against the police and asking for an apology for my arrest". He comments: "Sad to say, I'm not the first and won't be the last to be arrested for doing my job. The NUJ and the legal team have offered fantastic support - they've been really thorough. I've had NUJ membership for 20 years - and this whole thing shows that you never know when you'll need it most."

Branch Chair Matt Salusbury commented that it sounds as though the NUJ should be offering training to Kent Constabulary.

Marc Wadsworth offered "big solidarity for you as chair of the NUJ's Black Members' Council". He declared that "these asylum centres are deplorable and it's fantastic that you've reported on Napier Barracks." Member Larry Herman observed that "Andrew's report is a perfect example of why the NUJ is a trade union and not a 'professional organisation'. We can handle these things."

Another member reported a colleague being arrested while covering a direct action "up in the Midlands a week ago". That person was apparently de-arrested shortly afterwards, The member asked: "do you have any sense that this is part of a crackdown, or is it a stupid mistake?"

We don't know, yet. We reminded members of the emergency numbers that the NUJ offers for members in such situations.

Another member asked whether the police had seized memory cards - or was Andy able to stop them? In this case, we understand, they did take a card but Andy had already downloaded everything from it. They shouldn't have done that.

The Freelance intends shortly to produce a refresher on what police can do - it's governed by the operation of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). In the meantime, the magic phrase to deliver to the officer with the most decoration on their shoulders is: "that's special procedure material under PACE". Police should not seize journalistic material without a warrant.

  • 16 March 2021: on 8 March Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons reported on Napier Barracks, and on Penally Camp in Pembrokeshire, Wales. The summary reports that before these were opened at two weeks' notice "Public Health England had advised the Home Office that opening multi-occupancy dormitory-style accommodation at Napier was not supported by current guidance, and both they and Public Health Wales expressed concerns about the COVID-safety of the accommodation. Both sites were opened before Public Health Wales and Public Health England recommendations had been actioned." It gets worse.