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NUJ photographer gets damages and apology from Kent Police

“FURTHER TO the damages received by Mr Aitchison in compensation," writes Alan Pughsley, Chief Constable of Kent Police, "I apologise unreservedly to him for his unlawful arrest, false imprisonment and breach of his human rights. I expressly acknowledge there was no culpability on the part of Mr Aitchison who was performing an important function publicising the protest in the public interest. I recognise the fundamental importance of free speech and the independent of journalists; I accept they should not be at risk of arrest and of having their equipment seized when acting lawfully in reporting matters of public interest."

Andy Aitchison

Andy Aitchison told our virtual meeting in March what had happened

Andy told the Freelance: "This feels like an important victory for all journalists in the UK, particularly as we have continued to work during the covid restrictions.

"The NUJ legal department and their solicitors Bindmans have done incredible work to get this all sorted just nine months after it happened, given how slowly the legal wheels can turn. The support from everyone along the way has been appreciated and I now feel like I can get back to work exactly the same way before this all happened."

Andy had been arrested in his kitchen on 28 January "on suspicion of criminal damage" after photographing a protest outside Napier Barracks. The military camp in Folkestone, Kent is used to accommodate hundreds of asylum seekers.

He told the March meeting that in that month he had also been issued a Fixed Penalty Notice - a fine for breaching covid regulations. Of that the Chief Constable writes: "there were no grounds for suspecting breach of public health regulations in forceā€¦ given that Mr Aitchison was properly engaged in journalistic activity."

Bother at the barracks

On 28 January Andy had gone, following a tip-off, to photograph a demonstration outside Napier Barracks. There protesters poured red paint over the fence and onto the road immediately outside the barracks and called for its closure.

There had been protests by inmates over conditions at the barracks, with poor access to legal advice and healthcare. Hundreds have been locked into the barracks after a covid outbreak started there, with 120 testing positive for Covid by that time. Inmates received letters threatening them with arrest if they tried to leave. In March 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".

After Andy's photos appeared on social media and in local press reports, five Kent Police officers turned up at his home. He had his Press Card on him, "Yes, the first thing I showed when they came into my kitchen. Didn't make any difference to them," he Tweeted.

With the NUJ's help...

In early March, "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 to the barracks." It seemed important to keep up the coverage and not be cowed. It was a week after that Andy received the fixed penalty notice.

Andy comments:

I am relieved that this situation is now over and would like to thank the NUJ, in particular their Legal Department who has supported me throughout. I am lucky to have had excellent representation from Bindmans LLP and would also like to thank them for all their support and hard work... the police have acknowledged that photographers and journalists have a right to work. We must be able to work without fear of arrest and freedom to independently report on events. It is vital to our democracy that we are able to report on all issues, especially if they are politically sensitive.

I hope that Kent Police have learnt from this situation and will work hard to ensure that this does not happen to any other official journalists.

The NUJ continues to engage with police forces to try to ensure that all officers are aware of this, as our Freelance Organisers reported to the September meeting.

  • 25 October 2021: we added a quote from Andy