Press freedom prevails as police lose riot data case

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AN ATTEMPT by the police to force the media to hand over photographs and journalists' notes taken during riots in the City of London last month was thrown out by a judge yesterday.

In a landmark ruling, hailed as a victory for press freedom over police interference, Judge Henry Pownall said that the case involved two competing public interests. On the one hand, the Old Bailey judge said, the police must be able to investigate serious crime but on the other the media must be able to report and photograph in safety. In future, the ruling means the police will have to prove that interference with the freedom of the press is strictly necessary.

It had been argued by The Independent and other newspapers that if the public believed photographers and journalists at public events were acting as agents of the police it would be impossible to safely carry out their work.

The judge said that with a "heavy heart", because he was only too aware of the difficulties the police labour under, he declined to grant the police their orders. He said: "Applications such as these have all too often been treated in a routine fashion without the greatest care being taken." He added that sometimes they were carried out "too fast" without proper consideration of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

Judge Pownall said the police had a duty to acquaint themselves with the relevant sections of the Act and if necessary seek legal advice. He also criticised the attitude of the police in making "blanket orders" not distinguishing between the various papers and television companies. While he acknowledged that the rioters on 18 June had assaulted police officers and caused serious damage including arson, he said the police should have first examined their own photographic and film material before making an application to seize the media's material. Only if this did not bear fruit should they have gone on to make an approach to the media and press agencies. Judge Pownall rejected the police's contention that the reason they did not use alternative methods was because similar action had failed in the past.

"It is not enough that it did appear to Detective Inspector Moore [leading the police investigation] that other methods were bound to fail and that he knew of incidents ... where the systems had failed." Although he appreciated that "time was very often of the essence in any criminal investigation" he said the police must also have looked at their own photographs and film footage to make sure they did not have the relevant material themselves. And he said it was still up to the police to make "tactful" approaches to the media. He awarded costs of pounds 50,000 against the police. In evidence, The Independent said that the City of London police had not set out the grounds on which they sought production of the photographs.

Jan Thompson, managing editor of Independent Newspapers, said that the police had known that trouble was likely and should have taken steps to gather their own evidence of any offences rather than relying on the media to do their work for them.