RELATIONS between journalists and the police were the subject of the London Freelance Branch debate at the House of Commons on 13 March. The guidelines issued the week before by the Metropolitan Police are a great step forward - but how do we ensure that they are adhered to?
Lynne Featherstone, our host and Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, had just been told by the Party leadership that she will remain its spokesperson on police affairs. Before becoming an MP she had served on the London Police Authority.
"It isn't so much the guidelines or the laws that will solve problems," she observed. During her five years on the Police Authority she "found that you have to be quite tough with the police - if they think they can get away with something they'll do it."
Paddick is a Deputy Assistant Commissioner in the Metropolitan Police. He took issue with Lynne over whether the stopping of journalists is a deliberate effort to restrict reporting. "There may be the isolated occasions when police officers don't want something reported - but more often it'll be a side-effect of officers' over-zealous effort to keep the area around an event or disturbance 'sterile'."
DAC Brian Paddick at the meeting: photo © Andrew Wiard
Journalists are stopped or held under the same terms as anyone else. The Freelance had suggested that journalists being stopped under the Terrorism Act is an abuse of the Act. Just the previous week "the House of Lords came to my rescue" on this, when they ruled that the Act's powers can be invoked where it is "expedient" - so it was lawful to stop and search even innocent people.
The Act is also about reassuring people: "if they see likely-looking people being stopped and searched it makes them feel safer."
And the Met had, of course, just announced guidelines on press- police relations - see the April Freelance. "We have made it clear in the new guidelines," Brian reminded us, "that officers have no power to seize cameras or photographs".
Jeremy Dear, the union's General Secretary, said that it is not just the right to report, but the process of reporting that we are talking about.
For example, there has probably been no more important a time for journalism to be able to hold power to account than the "G8" summit in Scotland last July. "But for many journalists," Jeremy said, "it was a sorry tale of the barriers that exist to free reporting."
There may be an apology afterwards - but then it's too late. The deadline has already been missed.
"The NUJ welcomes," Jeremy declared, "the moves, that Brian Paddick has been a key part of, to introduce these guidelines." The experience of the BPPA (British Press Photographers' Association) and the CIoJ (Chartered Institute of Journalists) and the NUJ working together finally to get them agreed had been very positive. "We do think these guidelines are vital," he repeated: "and we welcome your commitment to putting them into practice."
To make that happen, we do need to have journalists involved in training. Apparently there are posters due to go out to police stations promoting the Press Card and the PIN number scheme for verifying cards.
Jeremy was concerned that Brian had used the words "likely-looking people" to describe those stopped under the Terrorism Act. Innocent people are likely to be caught up. But journalists carry press cards: if we are detained it should be ever so briefly, while their card is checked. He hoped that we and other journalists' organisations can work with the Met - "for there will be problems."
Brian responded: "I do despair at the behaviour of some of my colleagues. It was a challenge to get these guidelines agreed. Some senior officers who have more to do with Public Order than with media relations were not at all happy." So how to monitor the effectiveness of the guidelines? "I have done this once before: my personal mobile phone number is" - and he gave it to the 60-odd assembled journalists - if you find that police officers are not abiding by them, call me."
Jeff Moore of the BPPA reported that he had already shown the guidelines to a police officer with whom he was having a bit of a disagreement. The officer "said something very uncomplimentary about Brian Paddick and threw the paper to the ground". Broadcaster Pennie Quinton reported that she had been filming for Indymedia at the DSEi protests - and had been a plaintiff in the case against police decided in the House of Lords. A policewoman had grabbed her camera out of her hands. Pennie had offered her Press Card, but no attempt had been made to verify her name. Pennie had repeatedly asked under what law she was being held, and received answers to the effect of "I'll think of something".
Brian responded: "We've got to teach them about the Press Card. Unfortunately there are colleagues of mine who feel that to protect the reputation of the police... they have to cover things up... even if you secure evidence of police behaving inappropriately."
Past NUJ Deputy General Secretary Jacob Ecclestone reminded the meeting how "remarkable it is that someone as senior as Deputy Assistant Commissioner Paddick should be here" - in fifty years of involvement in the NUJ "no-one this senior in the Met has ever met with us, and we thank him for that and for his very straightforward commentary." Paul Steward of the CIoJ observed that we are all working on behalf of the public.
In response to photographer David Hoffman, Brian said that the guidelines would be included in six-monthly refresher courses for Sergeants and Inspectors. Further, they would be included in every Public Order refresher course.
Lynne Featherstone concluded that this "is all about the commitment of senior police officers, and there is only one Brian Paddick."
- There's a more complete report here.