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
OK. The Freelance has now bought Thompsons a
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
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.