Dale Farm disclosure ruling puts photographers in the firing line again

A decision by magistrates earlier this week to order three broadcasters to hand films of the Dale Farm evictions over to police yet again puts photographers in the firing line.

Essex police asked Chelmsford magistrates to issue a court order on Sky News, ITN and the BBC after all three refused to voluntarily give their footage to Essex Police.

The film is believed to show police using tasers on protestors.

Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, magistrates had to be satisfied on several counts:

1.    There were reasonable grounds for believing serious offences had been committed.
2.    Evidence on the film would be admissible at a trial.
3.    The evidence would be of substantial value to the police investigation.
4.    Police had unsuccessfully tried other methods to get the films.
5.    Handing over the films was in the public interest.

Essex police believe the films will help them identify people who attacked officers and committed other offences during the eviction of the travellers in October 2011.

The footage includes several hours of material that has never been broadcasted.

The TV companies’ stance is one that is usually taken by the media in similar situations.

They fear that voluntarily handing over film can compromise their impartiality and cast them in the role of evidence gatherers on behalf of the police.

The ruling by Chelmsford magistrates has been condemned by the Charter Institute of Journalists.

Vice president Charlie Harris said: “Orders to broadcasters and photographer to hand over footage and stills to the police are not new, and many journalists would accept, albeit reluctantly, that is some cases the interests of justice outweigh the narrower interests of the media.

“But the wide ranging nature of the material covered by this order is worrying in the extreme. By including footage and photos that have only a tangental link the the immediate lawbreaking being investigated is setting a massively dangerous precedent.

“It amounts to a clear fishing expedition by the Essex Constabulary in the vague hope that material seized may help clear up unsolved crimes connected with the events being covered by the journalists.

“In this case, the balance has not been tipped in favour of justice and the order should be vigorously resisted, if only to get its scope narrowed.”

Freelance Alun Hill is concerned about photographers’ safety. He said: “This represents a huge further restriction to photo – and video- journalists.

“We used to be able to mingle with both sides in any dispute, but  the public will be concerned, rightly, that we will be merely collecting evidence for the police .. we will be doing their jobs, in effect.

“If the police want evidence from a scene, it is up to them to gather it, not us.”

He added: “We’re already at loggergheads when we film the police in action – now we have to be extra careful when filming protesters.

‘This sort of request would never be made if the police were doing their jobs properly – and one wonders whether they are also trying to stop a supposedly free press from reporting what is really happening”.

Essex police expect to receive the Dale Farm films later this month.

Applications by the police under PACE are not that common,  but the courts usually grant them.

A judge in a case in 1990 involving photographs taken during the poll tax riots tellingly remarked that the police could not decide how relevant photographers’ material was until they had seen it.

 


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