Fears for safety of camera crews after riot film ruling

 

Broadcasters have criticised a judge’s decision to force them to hand over footage of the May riots in Oldham to Greater Manchester Police.

The BBC, ITN, Sky News and Granada had opposed the seizure of 120 hours of untransmitted footage wanted by police for their investigation into the violence, arguing that it would endanger journalists who could be targeted in future disturbances if they were perceived as "police stooges".

Since the riots, a BBC camera crew covering the appearance of 20 white and Asian youths charged with public order offences in Oldham has been forced to withdraw on police advice after it was threatened.

The broadcasters were also concerned that they had been asked to hand over all of their footage instead of selected segments.

But despite agreeing that camera crews would be put at greater risk, Judge Barry Woodward granted the application, claiming that the public would be "outraged" if police were not able to use the footage to catch the ringleaders.

"I have had to attempt to balance the interest of justice against the infringement of the liberties of the respondents," he said at Minshull Street Crown Court.

"While it is known to criminals that video records may provide evidence to lead to identification and conviction, if cameramen are seen to be a ready source of evidence the danger to them is likely to increase. With offences of such seriousness as this, involving as they do a whole community, the public would be outraged if materials could not be properly used."

Police told the court that, although some CCTV footage had been obtained, it was of limited use as many cameras had been put out of use during the riots. Despite the presence of police camera crews and helicopters, none of the footage enabled them to clearly identify any of the offenders.

The judge said he was satisfied that the request met conditions of Section 39 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act as the footage would enable police to identify the offenders.

"The whole purpose of cameramen is to present an accurate picture and capture as clearly as possible the consequences and often the commission of offences," said Judge Woodward. "This is what’s known as frontline journalism, which frequently puts cameramen at risk. They do produce remarkable results and they are rightly proud of them," he added.

But Mike Briscoe, newsgathering editor for the BBC North West, said that the act gave broadcasters "very little scope" for opposing the seizure of footage.

"The conditions are very tight and while I can see the judge’s point that people would be outraged if we refused to hand over evidence, saying it could be a bit dangerous, we still think it is important to show we are handing over the material unwillingly and to look for a bit of leeway, because there are important issues at stake."

A spokeswoman for the BBC in the North West said: "We regret this judgment. The judge clearly recognised the risks involved if camera crews are seen as a ready source of producing evidence for the police. Unfortunately, his decision went against the strong case even he conceded we had made."

The judge’s ruling follows the seizure last month of footage from BBC Leeds, ITN, Sky News and Yorkshire TV of disturbances in the Harehills area of Leeds.

The broadcasters are also opposing an order to hand over footage of the recent Bradford riots.

By Julie Tomlin and Simon Cross

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