Just Stop Oil protests: Police chief says journalists ‘have right to report’ after arrests

Chair of National Police Chiefs’ Council says officers are under ‘enormous pressure’ to stop disruption

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Wednesday 09 November 2022 17:57 GMT
LBC reporter recounts being arrested while covering Just Stop Oil demonstration

A police chief has said that journalists have the “right to report on any form of protest” after a reporter, photographer and filmmaker were arrested while covering action by Just Stop Oil.

They were handcuffed and kept in police cells for between five and 13 hours in what a female journalist described as a “terrifying ordeal”, despite trying to show their press cards.

Martin Hewitt, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said journalists should not be prevented from reporting on protests.

During a press conference at a major policing summit on Wednesday, he said he was not aware of the specific circumstances of arrests by Hertfordshire Police.

But he added: “Clearly there is a right for people to go and report at any form of protest … there is a right for journalists to go and report on those occasions and that shouldn’t be prevented in any way.”

Speaking to journalists later on Wednesday, the Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Mark Rowley said press freedom was “really important”.

He added: “Journalists are going to be close to the action sometimes and we should be sensitive to press freedom.”

After making a speech at the conference, home secretary Suella Braverman said she would not pre-judge any investigation but added: “What I’ve heard is concerning.”

Hertfordshire Constabulary have not apologised for the arrests, issuing a statement admitting that three people were arrested but “released with no further action following extensive enquiries”.

It added: “These circumstances did give us grounds to hold them in custody for questioning in order to verify their credentials and progress our investigation.”

The force later issued a statement saying it had requested a different regional police force to “examine our approach to these address and identify any learning”.

A spokesperson said that chief constable Charlie Hall “recognises concerns over the recent arrests of journalists” and that “additional measures are now in place to ensure that legitimate media are able to do their job” - including by requiring officers to get a supervisors’ approval before arresting anyone identifying themselves as press.

Cards issued by the UK Press Card Authority have text on the back stating that the NPCC recognises holders a “bona fide newsgatherers” and contains details of a verification hotline for any checks.

LBC reporter Charlotte Lynch said she was not questioned in custody, despite being held in a cell for five hours in what she called an “absolutely terrifying” ordeal.

She was arrested while reporting on a Just Stop Oil protest from a road bridge over junction 21 of the M25, and told how she showed officers her press card.

She was handcuffed, arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance and taken into custody.

A photographer was arrested at a Just Stop Oil protest on the M25
A photographer was arrested at a Just Stop Oil protest on the M25 (Rich Felgate / Twitter)

“I was just doing my job,” Ms Lynch said. “What’s also terrifying is what this means for press freedom. It was blindingly obvious I was a reporter.”

A photographer and filmmaker said they were held in police custody for around 13 hours for covering another Just Stop Oil protest in Hertfordshire on Monday.

Documentary maker Rich Felgate and photographer Tom Bowles had been capturing the activists on a footbridge over the M25 when they were arrested and had their equipment seized and were taken to a police station, despite efforts to show their press cards.

Mr Bowles, 47, said he was held until 1.30am, hours after his wife and 14-year-old daughter were woken up as three officers searched their home.

Hertfordshire Constabulary said an internal review of Ms Lynch’s arrest concluded that “though the actions of the officers at the scene are understandable, in retrospect an arrest would not have been necessary”.

Several MPs have voiced concerns about the arrests, including the shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell.

“Impartial, responsible journalism is a cornerstone for a healthy, secure democracy,” she wrote on Twitter. “It must be protected. Journalists should not be arrested for doing their jobs.”

Education secretary Gillian Keegan wrote on Twitter that “journalists shouldn’t get arrested for doing their job”, while fellow Conservative MP Matt Warman called for an apology and said it was “hard to understand why the police would arrest a journalist”.

The former shadow attorney general, Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, told LBC that extending “conspiracy to commit a public nuisance” arrests to journalists who may be aware of upcoming protests would be an attack on press freedom.

“So this is very, very serious,” she warned.

Mr Hewitt said there was “enormous pressure” on police forces to stop protests by Just Stop Oil, whose supporters have been causing major delays on the M25 and other busy routes by climbing overheard gantries.

Police closing the M25, where a demonstrator, from Just Stop Oil, has climbed the gantry on Tuesday (Just Stop Oil/PA)
Police closing the M25, where a demonstrator, from Just Stop Oil, has climbed the gantry on Tuesday (Just Stop Oil/PA) (PA Media)

“We’ve got to deal with those protest issues and there's an enormous amount of pressure in play,” Mr Hewitt added.

“People have the right to protest but it has got to be responsible.”

The senior officer said the injury of an Essex Police motorcycle rider who was involved in a crash while responding to the protests showed how Just Stop Oil’s tactics were “putting people at risk”.

“We are increasingly seeing things that are dangerous - for the protesters, for other members of the public and for police officers,” Mr Hewitt said.

“Groups have every right to make their point and seek to get it across through the media but they need to think really hard about the responsibility they have.”

The Justice campaign group said the arrests demonstrate that police already have a “broad range of powers” on protest, and raise concerns that new public order laws could be misused.

Lawyer Tyrone Steele said: “These arrests foreshadow what might become commonplace if the Public Order Bill is passed. The bill creates a swathe of new criminal offences that are so broad they have the potential to capture a vast range of ordinary peaceful behaviour, including journalists covering protests.

“These arrests demonstrate the risks that new police powers could be used disproportionately, serving as a chilling effect on our fundamental rights to freedom of speech, expression, and assembly.”

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