Reclaiming the right to report

IT WAS AN eye-opener. It's one thing talking about photograpers' needs and interests and the importance of free access to news, as a keyboard-bound union activist. It's quite another, putting yourself in the thick of it.

With two other Branch members, I attended the "carnival against capitalism" in the City of London on June 18 prominently labelled as a "Press Freedom Observer". By mid-afternoon, the many passers-by who asked what one of those was got the question "have you seen any press freedom recently?" None had.

Events until then had provided many, many happy, colourful pictures. People dancing in the spray from an impromptu four- storey fountain, that sort of thing. But, as one photographer said, "we have to eat, and this doesn't sell."

Confrontation does sell. So, I perk up my antennae to detect the least sign of tension - I need to be where it kicks off before it happens. I become hyper-aware of the flows of the crowd, 'specially the sub-set that swarms after "the rat". That's the furry TV microphone on its boom, and those may be people who might join in if it finds a ruck. And so we shape the news even before it happens.

When it does kick off, I find myself with a TV crew. They can barely believe that the union is out here, where it counts for them. Neither can Officer CO-000, who shoves me, no questions answered, through the line of riot shields to the protestors' side. Next time, CO-000, you're going to have to nick me and explain yourself in court.

After a sprint around the block I get back to where the pictures for the early evening news are happening. But they're long-shots of the back of a line of riot police. Fifty metres away, some of them seem to be kicking a woman who's been defiantly but entirely peacefully sitting on the kerb. "Move back, move back for your own safety" is the command to the camera crew. "We'll take our own risks, thanks..." Quite coincidentally, it's impossible to get photos of the woman.

Later, I hear reports that photographers have been attacked by demonstrators, too. Some regard photographers as agents of the police. We have to do a lot more to remind the world at large and these people in particular that genuine, responsible photographers who are union members do not hand photos over to the police. Perhaps we should advertise on Rizla packets?

So what should snappers - or press freedom observers - do when over-enthusiastic police constables order them to leave the area where the news is happening? The police must not have the power to determine what is reported. A sterile, press-free zone may be an open invitation to anyone who feels like breaking heads, in or out of uniform. Getting arrested for defying orders, however, doesn't improve reporting. In some circumstances - and June 18 felt like these - the police aren't nicking people anyway; they're battering the disobedient.

We were, anyway, able to provide at least moral support to one member with a problem. A photographer reported having a camera smashed out of his hands and into a dark corner by a police truncheon. He'd followed a group of protestors into a building, with three colleagues. To get out, everyone had to run a gauntlet under a hail of blows.

He wanted a solicitor to help him get his camera back. Thomsons, the firm appointed by the National Executive to cover all NUJ legal matters, didn't have any available. The NUJ members' hotline phone (07971 018 511) appeared to be in the toilets of a service station somewhere up the M1 when I called it. "Why didn't we warn them there were likely to be arrests this day?"

OK. The Freelance has now bought Thompsons a subscription to SCHNews, a news-sheet to which street photographers and anyone with an interest in potential public order situations should subscribe - £15 a year from PO Box 2600, Brighton, BN2 2DX; cheque payable to "Justice?". We recommend that they read it, and the Telegraph.

Police numbers have been changed to protect me.

  • The May LFB meeting saw a very interesting discussion about the right to report and ways of improving the functioning of the Press Card, with a senior police officer from Scotland Yard. The Freelance has run out of space, so that story is bailed to appear in September.
Jul/Aug 1999
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