How press freedom is now a ‘very extreme view’
A UK video journalist tells spiked why he is fighting orders to hand over protest footage to the police.
Where there is a protest in the UK, it’s a safe bet that Jason Parkinson will be there on the frontline filming it. From the G20 protests in 2009, to the recent Anonymous masked street protests, Parkinson’s carefully edited footage features in a range of publications and gives a short, sharp insight into what it’s like in the heat of demonstrations.
It seems, however, that such insights are too short and sharp for the police, who have demanded that Parkinson hand over all his footage of an English Defence League march and United Against Fascism (UAF) counter-demonstration he filmed in Bolton in 2010 to help them with an unspecified investigation they are carrying out. Parkinson, rightly, has refused, and this week appeared in court to fight a production order the Greater Manchester Police have applied for under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. ‘They claim my footage may or may not be of relevance to their investigation’, Parkinson told spiked. ‘I was not told what they were investigating.’
His reasons for refusing are both principled and pragmatic. As Parkinson explains: ‘Journalists are not evidence gatherers for the police.’ But he also recognises that, ‘if we are seen to be handing over footage to the authorities we will be viewed as just that and our safety covering such situations in the future we be jeopardised’.
Parkinson’s concerns are understandable. Should the police begin to make a habit of demanding footage from journalists at protests, any idea of journalistic independence will disappear. In spite of the intention of the journalist, the footage could be used to spot troublemakers, or even just to make a list of people who had attended. The video-journalists’ lens ceases to be neutral, and becomes instead a means through which the state can spy upon protesters. Should this become known, any trust between journalist and protesters would be lost, and hostile situations are bound to arise. Parkinson is right to fear for the future of his profession – and is equally right to fight the case.
This is not the first time the police have attempted to co-opt journalists’ material in such a way, and neither is it the first time demands have been made of Parkinson. As Parkinson explains, ‘production orders were becoming routine procedure in 2010, as opposed to being issued as the last resort, which is how they are supposed to be implemented’. It sounds like the police were beginning to use footage shot by journalists as part of a trawling exercise, rather than to investigate a particular serious crime. As Parkinson has observed previously, this appears to have coincided with a decline in the once-prominent police ‘forward intelligence’ teams who, in the early 2000s, would zealously film everyone attending protests. Relationships between journalists and police improved. ‘It was almost as if they wanted us there’, Parkinson told Journalism.co.uk . Starting notably with the student protests at Millbank in 2010, ‘[at] every public-order incident since then, one news outlet or another has had the proverbial knock at the door’.
This reached a head in 2011, when Essex police requested footage from all journalists and broadcasters who filmed the eviction of the Dale Farm travellers’ site over a two-day period. As Parkinson told spiked: ‘It was clear from the start this was not about proving any specific incidents of criminality, it was about seizing all material for intelligence purposes against protestors.’ To Parkinson, this amounted to ‘the biggest assault on press freedom and independence we had seen for many years’. Despite the evident amount of time and energy it would take, there was, he says, ‘no choice but to fight it’.
Over an eight-month period Parkinson, with the backing of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), fought the production order despite repeated chastisement from lawmakers. The prosecuting counsel at Chelmsford Crown Court accused him of having a ‘very extreme view’ for insisting that journalists should be able to report free from state interference. To his credit, however, Parkinson stuck to his guns and won a resounding victory in the Court of Appeal in May 2012, when the production order was overturned.
For a time following that, police requests from journalists slowed, with the latest order served on Parkinson from Greater Manchester Police being the first he had heard of since he won the case. Should the police win the case, the floodgates could once again open for the police to make a wealth of demands from journalists.
In an ideal world, Parkinson says, ‘the police would respect press freedom and leave our material alone… [But] at the very least, the police need to follow and implement the law correctly and to the letter, not just use the law as they wish’.
At a time when the Leveson Inquiry looks set to bring about state regulation of journalism – legally enforced or through royal charter – attempts by the police to casually commandeer journalists’ research and footage play a dangerous role in further eroding press freedom. Through the simple act of attempting to undertake their profession, the role of the journalist becomes warped. Instead of simply attempting to report observations or facts, journalists would be forced to become ancillaries of the state. Little could do more to erode faith in journalistic integrity.
Far from being ‘extreme’ in arguing that the state should respect press freedom and leave journalists’ material alone, Parkinson is making an argument that anyone who believes in democratic society should support. Just as the state should have no influence over the content of what a journalist writes, so it should be kept well away from ordering journalists to hand over material.
Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.
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