On Sunday the 21st April 2013 myself and another eight lens based journalists were directed off the motorway by Sussex police officers. Seven members of the group were searched by police officers, one photographer was told that she was being searched under the Terrorism Act (pictured).
We were travelling to Brighton to cover ‘March for England,’ a gathering of various far-right racist groups and individuals. Sussex Police estimated that around 250 far-right protesters and approximately 1000 counter-protesters were in Brighton that day. They drafted in over 700 public order officers from different forces to police the event. Sussex police report that by the events conclusion at 18:00, 19 public order related arrests had been made.
Sussex Police were authorised to use powers under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. This provides police with the power to, ‘stop and search pedestrians, vehicles and/or passengers where in a local police area, an officer of at least the rank of inspector reasonably believes that incidents involving serious violence have taken or may take place and it is expedient to prevent them, or find weapons or dangerous instruments for example blades and pointed weapons.’
We were traveling to Brighton in a nine seater minibus and first became aware of the police when we spotted a Land Rover parked overlooking the motorway. It was no surprise when a police car over took us and announced on a screen on their rear window that we were to follow them.
We followed the police to a car park and garages, in a place called Hickstead, a few miles from Brighton. One press photographer optimistically suggested that, “we will probably get a nice officer who will see our press cards and wave us through.” I think at that point we all shared this optimism. As we were pulling into the car park we noticed two other vehicles and their occupants being searched. We all recognised the English flags and other paraphernalia as the type used by the English Defence League. Police officers working against domestic extremism are no doubt aware of the ‘fatwa’ against a member of National Union of Journalists (NUJ), and their hatred and mistrust of photographers in general. If not they should be. We can only hope that those in the far-right being searched nearby did not over hear any of our details being taken or collect any other intelligence that could lead them to us in future. This was a worry on the day as there were comments made online by Casuals United, a group of far-right football hooligans and English Defence League supporters calling for the targeting of Brighton Argus journalists.
Due to these threats we were understandably eager to show our UK Press Card Authority (UKPCA) press cards to the police so that we could move on quickly without further attention being brought to us. The officers were shown our press cards but took no notice. This was surprising to us all due the fact that our press cards show police officers that we are not only members of the NUJ or the British Association of Journalists (BAJ) but to quote the message to police on the card:
‘The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) of England, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland recognise the holder of this card as a bona fide newsgatherer.’
A phone number is provided to a hot line so that verification can be given by the UKPCA in the form of a password that is known only to the UKPCA and the journalist.
The advice given to police officers using Section 60 to stop and search suspects by ACPO who, remember, recognise us as bona fide news gatherers, is that ‘Officers may question the person to confirm or eliminate reasonable suspicion for grounds for the search’ (Practice Advice on Stop and Search, ACPO and Centrex, p10, 1.6).
Once reasonable suspicion had been eliminated the officers could have saved themselves time and effort by not continuing with the search. Instead, when asked why they did not recognise our cards, one officer said that, “the officer in the car (the car that pulled us over) had started the process, so we are obliged to finish it.’ Another officer commented on a BAJ press card, “Anyone can print one of those off, they don’t prove anything.”
Being journalists, we had of course been recording the whole thing. A videographer started filming as soon as he could and I began filming on my iPhone almost immediately. From start to finish the searches took roughly 35 minutes and as soon as we were released we naturally started tweeting. When we finished work for the day and got a chance to check twitter, we were delighted to see over a hundred favourites, retweets and many more tweets of support and tweets of disgust at the idea of the police using Section 60 to search journalists. I am still getting retweets weeks later. The NUJ was quick to speak out and posted a statement online condemning the search (see link below).
There were a few messages of support for the police’s actions by people who felt that we could have been terrorists pretending to be journalists and our camera bags laden with weapons. The Boston Marathon bombing was also used as possible justification for the search. This leads me to our main concern about Sussex Police’s actions that day.
We are not terrorists, we are photographers.
We are journalists who are registered press card holders who have a process of identification supported by ACPO. Surely the police must respect ACPO’s guidance and involvement in the press card scheme? They must follow the UKPCA procedure stated on the card and once they have identified us they must not treat card carrying journalists like suspected terrorists.
It is not enough that Sussex Police tweeted that an officer had made a mistake when she informed a photographer that she was being searched under the Terrorism Act, 140 characters won’t cut it. Although it would be nice if we all received a formal apology for the mishandling of this encounter and the ignorance of police officers who do not understand the law or the UKPCA process of identification, we also need assurances from ACPO that this will not become an acceptable or standard part of policing in the future and that proper media training is being undertaken.
If a precedent is set and the police feel that it is acceptable to stop and search accredited journalists, they could use this to stall, disrupt, regulate and even stop us from reporting on certain events completely. At this point I am consciously avoiding giving anyone the excuse to invoke Godwin’s Law, but this is as unhealthy here in the UK as it is in the countries that our government so enthusiastically points its finger at, countries like North Korea and Iran where journalists are harassed, searched and arrested as a matter of course.
Article by Pete Maclaine
ACPO and Centrex (2006) Advice on Stop and Search, National Centre for Policing Excellence: