Met says it will 'facilitate' free MayDay reporting

Mind how you go...

Unidentifiable policeman threatening a photographer on 30 November 1999

The bad old face of policing photographers - November 30, 1999. By the time you read this, London Freelance members will have been out observing how the right to report is respected on May Day 2001. Whatever turns out to have happened then, which the Freelance is predicting wouldn't be what all the papers were predicting...


ABOUT 30 photographers packed into a room at London's Conway Hall on Thursday 26 April for a briefing on working in "Public Order situations" organised by London Freelance Branch and largely mobilised through the EPUK mailing list.

National Executive member Kevin Cooper came to give advice from his experience as a photographer on the streets of Belfast. He manfully avoided the obvious subtext - "so you think you've got problems?" Patrick Andrews, head of the criminal law department at NUJ solicitors Thompsons, gave a comprehensive briefing on the legalities and was questioned thoroughly on the powers police can use to obstruct reporting.

"The important thing to do when covering a demonstration," Cooper said, "is to work safely, avoid being arrested or assaulted, and get yourself and your film out so you can file your pictures." Indeed, "Arguing legal points with police officers is more likely to get you arrested," he said. "Better to deflect the officers' attention and continue working somewhere else in the demonstration."

At the request of NUJ members, Freelance Organiser John Toner had contacted New Scotland Yard asking for an assurance that they would not pen photographers in. The answer was that they "had no plans to do so" but that what actually happens during a demo must be "an operational matter" - Yard-speak for "not answering that".

At the briefing and afterwards photographers raised the very specific question of what they should do if swept up into "the kettle" - which the Freelance is told is police slang for an area where protesters are hemmed in (until they come to the boil, perhaps?). So the Freelance called the Yard again.

"At the briefings [on 26 April] we gave very specific information to Serial Inspectors that they should provide every assistance to members of the press," a senior Met source said. "Serial Inspectors" each command one van-load of police, so we're told that the Branch request that briefings go beyond senior officers - who are likely already more aware of the issues than others - is being honoured.

The source denied knowledge of the term "kettle" but said: "If journalists get captured inside a cordon they should make themselves known to an officer and show their press card and they will be facilitated - whatever elements of the press they might represent." The "elements" comment appears to acknowledge that freedom of the Press is not just for the corporate Press.

Several speakers said that the best thing to do if you find yourself inside a cordon is to approach the most senior police person you can find and try to have a discussion - not an argument. Andrews suggests the approach "I'm a professional doing my job, you're a professional doing your job - can you let me through to do mine?" The Freelance suggests this is not incompatible with also interacting with protesters on the basis that "I'm doing what I believe in, you're doing what you believe in..." Journalists should obviously act at all times to demonstrate their independence - not hanging out exclusively with protesters or police for example. The latter is particularly likely to get you mistaken for a police photographer or observer.

It's not very clear what powers authorise police action like the "kettle" - but, to repeat, arguing the toss is unlikely to help. Retreating, making a wide "D" manoeuvre and trying another police officer is more useful. The police can always invoke an un-specific common-law power to "maintain the Queen's Peace," after all. But their power to search you on the spot (under the Criminal Justice Act 1994) only covers looking for weapons - "they can flip through your address book to see whether a razor-blade falls out," Andrews said, "but they shouldn't read it."

Where law and lawyers really enter the picture is in the event that you do get nicked or assaulted. All NUJ freelance photographers should have the emergency legal contact number from the printed newsletter. If you do get arrested, Andrews said, insist on a receipt for everything taken from you. And politely decline to answer questions until a solicitor arrives. They'll be there as soon as they can.

And remember that NUJ policy is that you should never, ever hand over film or notes for the police to use as evidence - their job is to collect it for themselves, and ours is to report. Contact the Freelance or Journalist editors if you want to make film, for example, legally disappear - before any warrant is given against you.

  • The Freelance thanks Branch Secretary Molly Cooper for her work on organising the event.
Last modified: 26 April 2001 - © 2001 contributors
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