May 21 2024
Close this search box.

Freedom of the Press 

Freedom of the Press 

There was a certain irony in Just Stop Oil campaigners choosing to stage their protest on the M25. As they clambered up the gantries, hitching themselves to the steel railings, the flow of traffic beneath them slowed, and then ground to a halt. But inert traffic does not mean non-polluting traffic.  Drivers idled below, waiting for the protesters to be seized and for travel to be resume.  The longer the protesters remained aloft, the longer the drivers’ cars polluted.

This was not just a factor the protesters forgot to consider. Protesting along the M25 was not an attempt to solve the climate crisis, but to raise even more awareness of the impending climate catastrophe. Unsurprisingly, the activists’ attention-seeking ploy of gluing themselves to artworks like Giampietrino’s The Last Supper and Constable’s The Hay Wain, and then of throwing soup of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers has not had the desired effect. World leaders, brought together on a fleet of private jets and gas-guzzling convoys, have just continued to meet, to discuss, and to prevaricate at summits like COP27. Things have had to be taken up a notch, and so the protesters found themselves above the M25.

That their blockade of the M25 would end in their arrests was also something the activists would have contemplated before clambering up the motorway’s gantries. What they may have not considered – or even expected – was that the reporters covering their protest would be lumped in alongside them by the police. They had planned to be carted off in handcuffs, transported down the M25 to be charged and released at a station. They did not plan for reporters to be joining them.

Some Hertfordshire police officers had different ideas. Approaching Charlotte Lynch, a journalist reporting on the protests for LBC Radio, two officers told Lynch was she part of the conspiracy to cause ‘public nuisance’, and arrested her. To them, the fact that Lynch was obviously reporting the demonstration and that she carried a press card was no defence.  She was searched, her phone was seized, her hands were cuffed, and she was bundled into the back of a police van.  From there, she was taken on an hour-long journey to Stevenage police station, processed – with her mug shot taken – before being held in a cell for five hours.

After coming down and releasing Lynch, it’s easy to imagine that the officers thought she should be grateful. She risked being charged with conspiracy to cause public nuisance, but was instead let off scot free. Perhaps they viewed her as part of London’s liberal media elite, and saw her presence as condoning the protest. Perhaps they genuinely thought she was somehow part of the protest, despite her press card, cameras, and location away from the site. Perhaps they were just astonishingly incompetent police officers. But even if all of these were true, not one of them would be a defence.

There is no defence to the behaviour of these officers. Nor is there is there any defence to the behaviour of other officers policing the protest. The day before Lynch’s arrest, officers had arrested Rich Felgate, a filmmaker, and Tom Bowles, a press photographer, detaining them for over thirteen hours.  On a video recorded by Felgate, the arrested officer tells the pair that ‘you are being detained under section one of PACE’. PACE, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, regulates the powers of the police, with section one concerned with the police’s ability to stop and search.  The section may give the police the power to stop and search, but only if they have ‘reasonable grounds for suspecting that he will find stolen or prohibited articles.’ Despite what Hertfordshire Police may have later said, wanting to verify that reporters are really members of the press does not give the police the authority to lock them up for the interim.

It’s not clear what the officers were expecting to find on Felgate or Bowles.  They were clearly members of the press, offering up their press cards as they were questioned, and even if Felgate’s films take a sympathetic stance towards eco-protesters, they are no less legitimate for doing so. What was more astonishing was the decision by officers to take their investigation up a level, with Bowles’ home raided at 11pm, disturbing his wife and young daughter. Obviously, it turned up nothing. This hostile behaviour is part of a concerning shift in the conduct of the police towards journalists reporting on protests. Felgate told the Press Gazette that he has already been arrested twice in the last month, and that at least seven other journalists have been arrested while covering eco-protests.  Elsewhere, Andy Aitchison, a prison photographer with years of experience of working closely with the police and other officials, was arrested in 2020 after photographing a protest at an asylum centre, while Martin Banks, a journalist reporting on the European Union, had his phone and belongings seized by UK border police at the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais in March earlier this year.

The notion that reporters and the media have a unique role to play is not a novel one. Members of the press wear flak jackets emblazoned with PRESS in war zones for a reason – because they act as a zone of immunity. Soldiers on both sides of a conflict know that the media are there to do a job – not as combatants in the conflict. Arresting members of the press puts us in the same bracket as Russia, who have targeted journalists and tried to ‘silence critical voices.’ In the College of Policing guidelines, the importance of the media is emphasised, with officers told that they have ‘no power or moral responsibility to stop the filming or photographing of incidents or police personnel.’

While many senior officers have publicly condemned the behaviour of these officers, the fact that their junior counterparts even considered arresting the journalists – then actually arrested them – reveals the culture of intolerance that is rife within the executive branch. Speaking to LBC on Thursday, their police and crime commissioner, David Lloyd, argued that journalists like Lynch who had some knowledge of the time and location of the protest were ‘part of the problem’, and helping ‘Just Stop Oil…get their message out there very effectively.’ Lloyd doubtless has his supporters within the Home Office, up to and including the Home Secretary, who was dogmatic in the House of Commons this week about the need for officers to use the full extent of their powers in order to shut down public protest. She told them it was their ‘duty’ to shut down the protests, and reassured them that they had her and the government’s backing ‘in taking a firmer line to safeguard public order.’

If the government has its way, these powers will be broad indeed. In the Public Order Bill currently making its way through Parliament, the government spins the new powers as necessary ‘to bolster the police’s powers to respond more effectively to disruptive and dangerous protests.’ The bill directly targets forms of resistance that have been used by eco-protestors, including tunnelling, locking-on, and transport obstruction, by criminalising them, while an amendment quietly attached in October would let the Home Secretary applying for injunctions against people they consider ‘likely’ to commit such offences.

Fundamentally, the bill gives the police and the Home Secretary overwhelming discretion in whether or not they want protests to continue, which will transform protest from a fundamental right into a political expediency.  With the Home Secretary putting her weight behind legislation like this, it is hardly surprising that the police feel empowered and unaccountable. Rather than the legislation reiterating that they police with consent, and the need to balance rights like protest and freedom of speech, they are being told that they police with impunity.

So long as we see the country governed by an authoritarian-minded Home Office, police actions like this will continue. It may be that Just Stop Oil and eco-protests are unlawful, with the activists unfairly and unreasonably trespassing on the rights of others.  But it is not for the police to peremptorily shut down these protests without just cause, and even more importantly, to use their authority to intimidate and quieten journalists. Charlotte Lynch’s interview on LBC yesterday showed that even journalists backed by huge media organisations can be frightened by the fear of prosecution for doing their job. If journalists like that, who will have access to expert lawyers on the company’s tab, can be intimidated, what will this do to smaller outlets or independent journalists?

Journalists are supposed to report without fear or favour. They can’t do this if they are lumped in with those they are reporting on by the police. This is a thin blue line that the police should never cross.