Protections for journalists covering protests should be enshrined in law, Parliament was told, after several arrests of reporters at Just Stop Oil demonstrations.
Officers from Hertfordshire Constabulary arrested LBC’s Charlotte Lynch in November on suspicion of conspiracy to commit public nuisance as she tried to report on protests causing disruption on the M25.
A day earlier, documentary maker Rich Felgate and photographer Tom Bowles were also detained as they tried to capture footage of the activists. A fourth journalist, who has not been named publicly, was also arrested.
Peers from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and the crossbench backed an amendment to the Public Order Bill, which would enshrine in the law protections for journalists, legal observers, academics and bystanders monitoring or recording protests.
Press Gazette has previously reported on warnings that arrests of journalists in the UK could become “commonplace” under the Public Order Bill as it stands.
Former Independent, Independent on Sunday, Daily Express and Esquire editor Baroness Boycott told Parliament on Tuesday: “I’ve always believed over my half-century in this profession that, at least in this country, we were able to go to a demonstration and we could write about it.
“I also knew that if a protest got out of hand, there were plenty of laws to deal with it, but never, ever was a journalist told that they could not report on a story.
“The arrest of Charlotte Lynch … for me it was as though one of the pillars of our democratic society had just been kicked out from under my feet.
“She was held in a cell for five hours for reporting on a protest. It was a peaceful one, however bloody annoying people might find the Just Stop Oil lot.
“Something is fundamentally wrong with our justice system if police feel so empowered under the vast array of existing legislation to arrest and detain journalists first and ask the questions, or worse, later, ignoring the fact that they are from the press.”
Lady Boycott added that not only were protections needed for journalists under current legislation, but that the Public Order Bill itself made matters “all the more perilous” for those reporting.
The Public Order Bill would make it illegal to lock-on, for example glueing yourself to a road, but she argued that the definition is “so broad” it could include journalists carrying a camera.
The independent crossbench peer also claimed that the new stop and search powers could see journalists targeted, as well as in the use of Serious Disruption Protection Orders, so-called protest banning orders.
Tory peer Lord Deben, chair of the climate change committee, added: “In this country, a journalist must have access, without fear or favour.
“And the police must not treat them in a way that has happened again and again, and which must stop happening, not because of what is in this Bill, but what happens in any case.
“The fact that the police could hold, for five hours, a journalist, knowing that it was a journalist, is utterly unacceptable.
“You cannot do that in a democracy, nor can we talk to other countries about these things if that happens here and we don’t do something to enshrine in law that it should not happen.”
Home Office minister Lord Sharpe of Epsom condemned the arrests of the journalists covering protests, but said they were already false arrests, so further legislation is not required.
He said: “The Government is absolutely clear that the role of members of the press must be respected. It is vital journalists are able to do their job freely without restrictions.
“Journalists must be able to report without fear or favour.”
He pointed out Hertfordshire Police had acknowledged the arrests of the journalists were not justified and that changes in training and command would be made. An independent review has found the arrests may have constituted “unlawful interference” in the journalists’ freedom of expression.
The minister added: “The police made mistakes, we agree it was wrong, but we don’t legislate for instances where it was clearly a false arrest and therefore unlawful.”
Labour frontbencher Lord Coaker said he found this a “disappointing” response.
He said: “What happened in Hertfordshire was a real challenge to us to respond to something which seemed to threaten journalistic freedom to report on protests.
“For the Government to turn around and say, don’t worry, it’s a rare occurrence, won’t happen again, no need to worry, shrug shoulders, is just not the sort of response that one would hope to get from the Government.”
He urged the Government to “reflect” on whether they need to act to protect the “cherished freedom” of the press.
Green Party peer Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb said: “The police should have known it was an illegal arrest, but they must have thought they could get away with it.
“That’s what really irks me, it’s the thought that the police were so high-handed and that’s why it has to be explicit so they cannot claim in any sense ignorance of the law.”
Lady Boycott said the Government was using its “bad apple response”, but argued that it is not a one-off but a systematic problem.
She said: “We send journalists to monitor whether they are having free elections in African countries.
“How can we stand here and say that’s a good idea when at the same time someone who is reporting on a climate protest is chucked in jail?
“I mean she was in a cell with a tin bucket as a lavatory for five hours, I mean we’re not talking about a quiet slap on the wrist … this was a serious thing and it happened, therefore, we are obliged to do something about it.”
The group of peers with their names to this amendment – Lady Boycott, Baroness Chakrabarti, Lord Paddick and Lady Jones – are expected to bring it back at report stage.
Law reform organisation Justice said the amendment “would help safeguard the freedom of the press. It is vital, and in the public interest, that the press has access to protest sites in order to report on and monitor police powers, essential for preventing abuse.”
Raising concerns about the proposed Serious Disruption Prevention Orders, Justice lawyer Tyrone Steele said: “These orders could be imposed on people with the most tangential connection to a protest, including journalists in the field. As a result, journalists could face bans on attending protests, restrictions on their internet usage, GPS ankle tagging and, if breached, imprisonment.”
He added: “The Government must ensure that journalists are safely able to report on the policing of protests, free from the fear of arrest. The freedom of the press, essential to our democracy, is too precious to put at risk.”
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