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Street smarts

REPORTING on protest is difficult. In a sense, news values demand it not be easy: think how hard it is to sell words or pictures of "fluffy" gigs. But press anyone who cares about democracy and they'll have to agree that it can't function unless protest - even unpopular or plain wrong protest - can be fairly and openly reported.

A photographer apparently being grappled by three police; we've masked their faces

IS THIS the future of protest photography? At least one police person (not pictured) has threatened to sue a photographer "under the Human Rights Act" for daring to snap an arrest. A senior Metropolitan officer remarks that "if that was being said, I wouldn't support it: there is nothing in law that stops a journalist taking such pictures"

It's a very serious matter, then, if members of an organised force obstruct, threaten - or unjustly arrest, or assault - reporters. There are very large issues here, and we'll discuss some at the February LFB meeting at the House of Commons - see meeting details and discussion article.

There are very practical issues, too. And London Freelance Branch has launched an initiative to explore what can be done to improve things on the ground and on the street.

Three Branch members met with Chief Superintendent Stephen French, head of the Metropolitan Police Public Order division, in November. Veteran street photographer David Hoffman outlined the kind of problems he's experienced, which led straight into a discussion of our first and most immediate point. What can we do to make sure that every police person, from Constable to Commissioner, is aware of the Press Card? Too often it's entirely ignored. One Force (outside London) claimed - falsely and briefly - that it's easy to forge.

The Press Card Committee, through NUJ representative Tim Gopsill, is already preparing a poster for police stations. This should feature a very clear image of the card and a snappy explanation of how it can be verified using a PIN number. What can be done to reinforce the message?

In September the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police issued a bulletin calling for the Force to be much more co-operative with journalists. Apparently, before major events ranking officers are briefed about dealings with reporters. But as Branch Secretary Molly Cooper pointed out, problems are just as likely at small pickets and protests - and there've been few direct problems with ranking police. So we'll be pursuing the point that every police person needs to be briefed.

As Hoffman put it, "I'd like to feel that the police felt that one of their duties in society is protecting the freedom of the press." Shouldn't this be all forces' official policy? The Branch has requested a meeting with the Association of Chief Police Officers on this long-term goal.

Back at ground level, Freelance editor Mike Holderness reported watching Constables sort reporters into "us" and "them" - the BBC or the PA thataway, freelance snappers into the crush, and here's a shield that says no, you can't talk to the Inspector about it. Would it help if they met an actual photographer during their training, to disabuse them of any idea that "proper hacks" look like Weegee, for example? If police act out demonstrator rôles during training, couldn't a few act as reporters or photographers at times to remind everyone that there are more than two sides to the coin? CS French proposed a further meeting with officers who organise Public Order training to discuss this. Expect a call for volunteers later.

It would be easier for Constables under pressure, of course, if reporters were more easily identifiable. Wearing a Press Card on a string around your neck is not, however, a good plan.

A vivid green tabard, say, would be obvious, but raises another difficult issue - the concern some members feel about threats from protesters. Would it say "brick me"?

Hackmark? Tell us!

The Branch is exploring the idea of supplying members with a discreet identifying thingy that's obvious only to those who've been briefed. Tell us what you think. Would you use such a thing? Might it make life harder for members who didn't wear it?

One of the reasons that some protesters dislike photographers in particular, of course, is the police habit of demanding film to use in court. If the Metropolitan Police stopped doing this, it'd be so much easier to suggest that members make themselves identifiable.

Not surprisingly, this was the one issue we raised to which CS French couldn't give a positive response. We'll have to work on this in other ways - and on the editors who print "rogues' galleries" even before police ask. On the Card, on training and on overall policy, we're talking and it's good to talk.

Last modified: 29 Jan 2001 - © 2000 contributors
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