NUJ members challenge domestic extremists database

Photo © Matt Salusbury
Jess Hurd (left, back to camera) the 2010 I'm a Photographer, Not a Terrorist demo, of which she was one of the organisers

NUJ MEMBER freelances have discovered dozens of police "intelligence reports" on their activities as journalists, on a database of domestic extremist, with one NUJ member who covers protests being labelled "XLW" (Extreme Left Wing.)

Photographer Jess Hurd and video journalist Jason N Parkinson, both of NUJ London Photographers Branch, are two of the six NUJ members who are bringing a judicial review over police surveillance on them at work. They gave some background to their case at a meeting of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers at the end of January. Also speaking was their barrister, Shamik Dutta of law firm Bhatt Murphy.

Jess and Jason became aware in the noughties that whenever they covered protests, uniformed police would always be there, often with police photographers, videoing and photographing them and taking notes on their movements. Worse, they would be regularly stopped and searched, often after showing their Press Cards, and in some cases assaulted, kettled, detained, arrested and prevented from filing stories in time.

Jason was told while entering one of the Climate Camps that he was being searched because of the "possibility" that he might be bringing weapons, or tools to commit criminal damage, into the camp. On one occasion, in the woods round the back of the EDO arms factory near Brighton, a police officer told him - off the record - that he (Jason) was being targeted for surveillance, which he thought was wrong, and for which he personally apologised.

Police photographer with riot police; Matt Salusbury

A police photographer gathers data on anti-G8 activists - and journalists covering protests - as a unit of riot police clears a crowd from Golden Square, Soho in the Summer of 2013.

After a lot of work over a very long time, supported by the NUJ, Jess and Jason started getting their files from the police. Jason's report had pages and pages of extracts from over 141 intelligence reports on events he'd covered as a member of the press.

Jess's noted she was always seen "wearing Joe 90-style spectacles", while Jason's file had "incredible detail about my clothing," down to the colour of his shoelaces. His file denoted him as "XLW" which apparently means "extreme left wing" (he's not a member of any political organisation). Both Jess and Jason found they were recorded as being on demos they'd never been on (Jason was clocked at a UK Climate Camp action when he was out of the country covering elections in Mexico.)

Some intel reports were redacted, suggesting that some of the "third parties" Jess and Jason had talked to would also show up on the same database. There were records of Jason's social media activity - his Twitter account and his post on an NUJ Facebook page. (Kevin Blow, coordinator of the Network for Police Monitoring, was also present at the meeting and noted the Met had a couple of years ago bought very expensive software that allows "real-time" keyword searches as part of mass social media monitoring.) One public event at which Jason was recorded as speaking was - ironically - a talk on police surveillance. His voter registration records and details of a previous partner also featured.

While the colour of Jason's shoelaces and the style of Jess's glasses was recorded in often sarcastic detail, both Jess and Jason's files had some obvious gaping omissions, suggesting the police had more they weren't releasing. Curiously, the omissions included occasions on which they had been wrongfully detained and subsequently given an apology by the police.

Jess's file went all the way back to an anti-deportation protest at Heathrow in 2000, and recorded her Terrorism Act stop while photographing a travellers' wedding in Docklands. Jess described some bizarre stop and searches under the Terrorism Act and other legislation that other journalists have been subject to, including a wildlife photographer snapping owls in Manchester City Centre.

Jason and Jess were covering the Arab Spring in Egypt when they became aware they were being closely followed by various Egyptian police and security units, including military and secret police, to the extent that they had to cut short their assignments. This raises the possibility that police forces in the UK may be sharing data on the "domestic extremism" database with other forces in far less democratic countries, putting UK journalists working abroad at considerable risk.

Shamik began the meeting by asking, "Are you a domestic extremist?" The surprising answer what that it doesn't really matter whether you are or you aren't. The police are now arguing that they need to photograph and make notes on absolutely everybody who ever shows up on a demonstration, in order to distinguish who are the "peaceful protesters," and to be able to eliminate them from their enquiries. Shamik said that, as with the judgement banning the blanket retention of DNA suspects who were never charged, the courts are likely to take a very dim view indeed of this explanation.

Until recently this was the database of the National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit (NDEDIU) and before that it was better-known National Public Order Intelligence (NPIOU). Shamik noted it was hard to keep up with constant rebranding of the database, let alone put in a Data Protection Act request to the right body, as the database's name had just changed again.

Shamik also represented 89 nine-year-old World War Two veteran and peace activist John Catt, who won at the Appeal Court in March 2013. High Court judges ordered the deletion of 55 NPIOU intel reports on him. The judges commented that retaining this data was a significant breach of John's human rights, and also of little or no intelligence value. The Metropolitan Police are appealing this ruling at the Supreme Court, and the judicial review on behalf of Jess and Jason and the rest of the NUJ Six (see below) is adjourned pending that imminent judgement.

City Police had - apparently inadvertently - let slip to John Catt when they stopped his car coming home from a demo and told him he was on a database of people "of interest". This led to years of patient work by lawyers, activists and investigative reporters, and eventually to the revelation that thousands of people with no criminal record were on a database of a unit then known as the NPIOU. Included in the database were journalists, as well as elected politicians.

In recent months, pressure brought mostly by Green Party London Assembly member Jenny Jones has produced from the Met a new, narrower definition of "domestic extremism". This has now been tightened to focus on serious criminality rather than "criminal acts of direct action" as previously.

Why on earth do the Met bother to monitor journalists going about their business covering protest? Netpol's Kevin Blow had talked to undercover police whistleblower Peter Francis, who told him the police are always trying to get their heads round new and emerging social movements and one way of doing that is to keep tabs on the journalists who are also trying to find out about them.

Letter from the Met admitting database entry is incorrect; Matt Salusbury

The Met admit to the author of this article that the National Domestic Extremism Unit's report of him attending a 2007 demo in Crawley is erroneous, and that the "incorrect data... has now been deleted".

Some targets of surveillance have managed to get assurances from the Met that their data (inaccurate, disproportionate, outdated or otherwise) has been deleted, but should we believe them? Shamik says that in this digital age, everything is backed up on mirror-drives somewhere, so it's never really deleted. In the event that the Supreme Court rules "domestic extremist" data retention illegal, says Shamik, there has to be a serious discussion about how this data can be "put beyond use."

(Photographic reference no. 1481, Metrpolitan Police CO11 database)

Last modified: 01 Feb 2015 - © 2015 contributors
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