When journalists become collateral damage

My trade union, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), has just released a short film that highlights some of the problems faced by journalists covering political demonstrations in Britain. The nine minute video, made by Jason Parkinson, focuses on photographers and filmmakers, as these sub-species of Homo journalisticus have the most physical presence at such events. But it must be said that reporters are also having an increasingly rough time of things.

NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear speaking to the Trades Union Congress in Brighton…

“The terrorising of journalists isn’t just done by shadowy men in balaclavas, but also by governments and organisations who use the apparatus of the law or state authorities to suppress and distort the information they do not want the public to know, and to terrorise the journalists involved through injunctions, threats to imprisonment and financial ruin.”

“The use of the Terrorism Act and SOCPA increasingly criminalise not just those who protest, but those deemed to be giving the oxygen of publicity to such dissent. Journalists’ material and their sources are increasingly targeted by those who wish to pull a cloak of secrecy over their actions.”

“As if in some Orwellian nightmare, the Ministry of Freedom tells us that the price we must pay for peace and liberty at home is not just a war in Iraq – not just the billions spent on war – but, in the wake of the London bombings, is the fingerprinting of council workers and the covert surveillance of M&S workers. It is ID cards and 42-day detention. It is curbs on the right to protest, the civil contingencies act, and it is the extension of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, a snoopers’ charter giving access to personal texts, emails and internet use.”

“The price is too high. Less liberty does not imply greater security. It never has.”

My own work as a desk-based writer and editor tends not to bring me into contact with the boys and girls in blue, but over the years I’ve had my fair share of encounters with the police. Most recently I was one of many journalists visiting the Climate Camp 2008 near Kingsnorth power station in the south-east of England who were stopped and searched by the police using arbitrary powers granted them under Section 60 of New Labour’s Criminal Justice Act, which covers anticipation of violent disorder.

Unlike the photo-journalists featured in the above film, I was not physically assaulted by the police in Kent. All three of the officers who searched me were courteous in their behaviour if errant in their procedures. But three searches over the space of an afternoon – despite the fact that the police-recognised UK Press Card hung around my neck would be confiscated and my union membership terminated if I were involved in violent protest – add to the evidence amassed by the NUJ of intimidatory and very political policing in 21st century Britain.