Wednesday, 16 July 2008
In 2001 I attended a seminar hosted by Nick Cobbing held at a leading media law chambers on UK 'frontline' journalism - that is the reporting of events likely to involve public disorder such as, but not limited to, actions against blood sports, GM crops, capitalism and animal laboratories. If I recall correctly Nick had just won a settlement from the police for their assault of him and had invited some of his legal team to hold a seminar for photojournalists.
In seven years since there have been many further incidents. There have been many other seminars. Attempts at censorship whether by governments or misinformed oafs have to be resisted equally. I am mindful of the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) so I've reposted this from my own site as a small token effort. It's about the only thing of mine on the web with any web traffic...
At the seminar there were several issues discussed but the key one being that journalists (or the more inclusive term 'news gatherers') are usually held in the same regard by the authorities as the demonstrators.
Allegedly each side either claims news gatherers are collecting information on behalf of the authorities or that demonstrators are posing as news gatherers to evade arrest. Of great concern to those attending was the number of cases of news gatherers being detained and so having their film or tapes confiscated and then being released without charge after their deadlines had passed. A concern was what could happen to news gatherers films, tapes, laptops, PDAs, digital cameras, phones etc. while in custody for they could contain evidence of crimes being committed, not only by the demonstrators but by the authorities, or might contain data that could be copied and stored for intelligence purposes. That happening would undermine the position of all news gatherers and in certain circumstances would endanger their lives.
Under the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), if the police believe that a news gatherer's notes, film or videotape or any other 'journalistic material' contain evidence of a crime and the news gatherer is not charged with a 'serious arrestable offence', the police have to apply to a circuit judge at a Crown Court to obtain it under 'special procedures'. Journalists can ask the judge to refuse the request to prevent revealing privileged information such as sources. The present law is extremely complex, hence the need for the seminar, and has yet to be fully tested against the subsequent human rights legislation but a basic assumption is that if a news gatherer is detained by the authorities but not charged, the authorities cannot freely examine their journalistic material.
The likelihood of journalists suing for false arrest and the PACE legislation should deter fishing expeditions into a news gatherer's notes and films while they are detained but this apparently is not always the case. In one instance police officers detained news gatherers covering a demonstration and refused to acknowledge their status (even though the detainees made strenuous efforts to present their credentials) and refused to accept that their belongings were journalistic material and alleged they were demonstrators and their credentials were faked - despite the established methods of police verification. Other violations of special procedures have occurred while journalists were in custody without being charged but the defence was put that the journalistic material had been separated from the news gatherer during the disturbance and so its status could not be known.
I asked the question if simple labels on the equipment warning of its status could avoid this. I was surprised to learn that this had not been thought of before but after a discussion by the distinguished panel of media and human rights lawyers, including Kier Starmer QC, they all urged the media to adopt the labels. The only certainty that labels would be effective would come from putting them to the test.
Therefore, for the common good, I have provided the label artwork here. The wording has been carefully written (with the previous caveat) to remove any doubt as to their purpose and cover as many applications as could be foreseen. Nobody on the panel could see how these labels could hinder the authorities from lawfully carrying out their duties.
If you have any qualified comments or have had the opportunity to test these labels, please get in touch. The format is suitable for the many kinds of mylar® inventory tags which can be printed cheaply and come in various thicknesses and glue strengths to suit any surface. I am told that printing onto vinyl with a colour inkjet printer produces suitable results. I advise that news gatherers always mark their equipment in case of loss anyway. For me a tape printer label with my surname and a postcode strikes the right balance between size, privacy concerns and the information required.
I must also point out that this label wording and artwork is COPYRIGHT and I only provide it for free on condition that no one manufactures to sell or profits by these labels. I have asserted my moral rights as the author. I also have it on m'learned advice that changing the wording does not void my copyright and would be committing plagiarism.