JOURNALISM: Editors’ fears over police threats to journalists covering lockdown protests

Editors say journalists should be allowed to cover protests like this one.

BY MARIELLA BROWN

The Society of Editors is to seek urgent clarification from the Home Office and Met Police that photographers and journalists will be able to cover protests which take place under the new lockdown measures in England.

The Society has confirmed reports of journalists at yesterday’s anti-lockdown protests in London being told to clear from the area, that they were breaking Covid-19 guidelines and were threatened with arrest.

Journalists covering the Trafalgar Square protest objecting to the lockdown in England were reportedly told by officers they were not seen as essential workers and needed special permission from the Met Police to be present.

In one reported incident, a photographer was told he was considered to be part of the protests simply for being there. 

In a video an officer is seen asking the photographer: “Are you authorised by our office to be here today?”

The officer then says he is asking: “Because you are part of the protest and there is no protest allowed.”

The officer questioned who the photographer worked for and who authorised him to work there.

The photographer responded “We don’t need to… we’re key workers. We have a job to report”.

Other photographers reported showing accredited press cards but these were ignored.

Ian Murray, executive director of the SoE said the reports were extremely concerning.

“At the very least this is poor communication to frontline officers of the ruling by government that journalists are considered to be essential workers during this crisis. At worst, this is an alarming disregard of the principles of a free media going about its lawful business.

“It is frighteningly Kafkaesque for police to use the excuse that because a protest is considered to be against the law journalists are also breaking the law by being there to cover what is taking place. That sort of logic is used by tyrants and totalitarian states the world over to suppress the truth.

“The SoE has written to the Home Secretary and the Met Police Commissioner today asking that the guidelines issued by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) stipulating that journalists are essential workers and should be allowed to go about their work be honoured.”

The reported incidents took place as police clashed with protestors in the capital on the first day of the month-long second England-wide lockdown.

Jason N. Parkinson, the photojournalist who was captured speaking with officers above told the SoE about the incident:

“Initially I passed it off as one of those isolated incidents, but soon after I saw another video journalist, Anthony who was later assaulted, being told the press were not exempt from arrest. Over the next hour every member of the press I met said they were being threatened with arrest if they did not leave the area.
“One photographer said he had heard the order given to officers that the press were key workers and had a right to be there to report, but it still continued until the incident was over about two hours later, ending around Piccadilly Circus.
“In addition to the recorded incident I was also told by officers to leave the area or face arrest and told the press must only gather in groups of no more than two, despite us wearing masks and adhering to two metres as closely as possible. I was even asked by one officer why the press needed to speak with each other, which I found completely ridiculous.
“In my experience every time I was spoken to or confronted by officers at no time did they respect social distancing and on a few occasions got right in my face quite aggressively. It’s a good job I chose to wear a P3 anti-viral mask as opposed to a simple paper mask.”

Another journalist at the event told the SoE they were threatened three times by the police, told they were not exempt from arrest and eventually had to leave the area.

Photographers reported that the police officers were “hostile and very aggressive” to members of the press throughout the evening.

A freelance photographer who was covering the protests told the Society of Editors:

“I was on Charing Cross Road covering the protest last night.

“Police officers were mingling with the crowd asking them to disperse, quoting COVID restrictions and in some cases, threatening arrest.

“I was photographing Piers Corbyn as he was giving a speech when I was asked to move by an officer.  I moved as I had got some frames anyway.  I moved a few yards down Charing Cross Road and was again approached by police officers.  I was asked to move.

“I asked the officer why and was told “just move”.  I showed the officer my BAJ issued press card which was visible on a lanyard around my neck.  He replied “I don’t give a f***, move”.

“I explained that journalists carrying gatekeeper issued press cards are classed as essential workers.  He replied: “No you are not”.

“The officers’ manner was provocative and threatening.  I left the scene as I was worried I faced arrest.”

Peter Clifton, editor-in-chief of PA Media, told the SoE both his photographer and video journalist were told to clear the area and threatened with arrest.

“We appreciate these are high-pressure situations and the police have a job to do. But so do journalists. PA’s photographer and video journalist were both threatened with arrest and told to clear the area, which is completely unacceptable when they are covering an event in a public place with valid press cards.

“In an open society the right of journalists to cover demonstrations should not be up for discussion or open to threats of arrest.”

Under current lockdown regulations, the Metropolitan Police said that the gathering was “unlawful and putting others at risk”.

However, under guidelines issued by the NPCC journalists are covered as key workers with the guidance stating “there is a public interest in keeping the population informed of the developing crisis”.

The news comes as the National Union of Journalists has issued fresh guidance to photojournalists after the new restrictions were introduced in response to the Covid-19 crisis.

Union chiefs have warned photojournalists to beware of “hostile members of the public” during the national lockdown in England.

The NPCC guidelines appear below:

Maybe the time is right for the authorities to consider issuing larger press cards such as the ones being worn in the picture above by Bill and Bernie Heaney at a Papal Visit in Glasgow in 1982?

A full statement by Jason Parkinson appears below:

“It really as a minor protest, only about 100 or so, the same unusual Coronavirus conspiracy lot who had decided to jump on the back of the Million Mask March, which had massively dwindled in numbers to tens since it’s violent times between 2013 to 2015.
“As soon as the arrests started myself and a photographer were confronted by the police liaison you saw in the video.
“Initially I passed it off as one of those isolated incidents, but soon after I saw another video journalist, Anthony who was later assaulted, being told the press were not exempt from arrest. Over the next hour every member of the press I met said they were being threatened with arrest if they did not leave the area.
“One photographer said he had heard the order given to officers that the press were key workers and had a right to be there to report, but it still continued until the incident was over about two hours later, ending around Piccadilly Circus.
“In addition to the recorded incident I was also told by officers to leave the area or face arrest and told the press must only gather in groups of no more than two, despite us wearing masks and adhering to two metres as closely as possible. I was even asked by one officer why the press needed to speak with each other, which I found completely ridiculous.
“In my experience every time I was spoken to or confronted by officers at no time did they respect social distancing and on a few occasions got right in my face quite aggressively. It’s a good job I chose to wear a P3 anti-viral mask as opposed to a simple paper mask.
“There have been a few isolated issues before in the first lockdown, which to me seemed to be down to individual officer’s interpretation, but were ironed out really quick and we could all get on with our jobs, but this was different. It disrupted everyone’s night working and ended in the assault of one colleague. I can only hope it is dealt with quickly so we don’t have to endure such working conditions again during this next lockdown.”

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