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Help the NUJ expose the monitoring of journalists

20 November 2013

Mark Thomas

David Miranda’s detention at Heathrow airport highlights the polices cavalier attitude to press freedom and rightly deserves the coverage given to the story in the Guardian but away from the front pages the police monitor and record journalists activities in far more routine and mundane ways.

For some time the police have been running a database on ‘domestic extremists’, a cute phrase that conjures more images of Nigella Lawson than political adventurers, and perhaps this nonspecific description is intentional as it covers an array of people from Quakers to artists to protestors and comics. Notably many on the list have no criminal record - the only crime some seem to commit is to enjoy their right to peaceful protest – yet they appear on a database that in some cases spans decades and attempts to provide political and sometimes personal profiles.

Earlier, emboldened by the John Catt court case (details below), I made a subject access request under the Data Protection Act requesting the information, opinions and images the Metropolitan Police held on file about me and was delighted to finally receive their response, namely 63 individual entries spanning 7 pages of cut and paste intelligence items.

The result is a bizarre list of events monitored by the police, lectures given, panels attended, even petitions I have supported. One entry notes my presence at an anti war demo, describing what I am wearing and what sort of bike I am riding, the police continue, "he said hello to us as he passed and seemed very happy." This chatty tone noting my emotional wellbeing on their database is wonderfully odd in an Ealing Comedy meets the Stasi sort of way and has all the reassurance of a stalkers smile, but does make for bewildering reading.

Neither is all the data the police collate always accurate - on one occasion I am listed as attending an event in London and yet actually manage to be at the other end of the country in front of 500 people at the same time. Another entry lists me as a potential VIP for the state visit of the King of Saudi Arabia, which would have been memorable if true.

However, the database takes a more sinister turn when it details the part of my work that crosses into journalism:

  • The file lists programmes made with Channel 4 noting the recording and broadcast times. One such programme included filming of a train transporting nuclear waste, where the train parks up in order for the driver to open and shut a level crossing gate. I would have thought leaving a train load of nuclear waste unattended at a level crossing in Kent is of public interest and concern, so why is my work exposing this included and kept on a database of ‘domestic extremists’?
  • Likewise why is a programme about the Conditionally Exempt Works of Art List (a scheme where the wealthy get to defer inheritance tax) included in the file? It is hardly an extremist action to point out the loopholes in the law, especially when the programme is later mentioned in Hansard as instigating a change in the law to improve regulations.
  • A host of entries detail my engagement with the police about the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act - at the time I was writing in the New Statesman extensively about these laws and went on to make a Sony award winning programme on BBC Radio 4.
  • The police note in another entry that I ran an undercover front company to expose loopholes and legal breaches in the arms trade. This is true. It is also true that this led to arms companies being expelled from the Docklands Arms fair for offering torture equipment and my evidence submitted to the House of Commons select committee was later commend in their report. So on one hand my reporting is praised by MPs and on the other it is kept on a file of ‘domestic extremist ‘ activities by the police.

I apologise for the boastful tone but the police have monitored public interest investigations in my case since 1999. More importantly if the police are keeping tabs on a lightweight like myself then they are doing the same and more to others. This is more than supposition as I know of other NUJ members on the database.

Which is why I am asking NUJ members to take action. If your work brings you into contact with the police whether covering riots or climate camp, from Plebgate to the NSA, then the police could have you on their database. So find out if you are on the database. It takes ten minutes of your time to apply to the Met for the data they may hold on you. You simply need to complete a letter, include a photocopy of a utility bill and another form of ID, and a recent photo.

The police should reply in 40 days (although in practice I had to wait nearly twice as long).

If you are on the ‘domestic extremist’ database you can challenge your inclusion. The NUJ are backing legal action I am proposing to take demanding the full disclosure of material they hold about me and the eradication of my file but the really important work starts if other NUJ members join the challenge to reverse the police policy and delete files held on journalists.

So on the day of action against the blacklist do this one simple thing to help fight police monitoring journalists.

For more information visit the Blacklisting campaign page of the NUJ website.

Tags: , comedy, police, surveillance, blacklisting, 911