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Home Office pledges to improve police-press relations

28 October 2008

The NUJ has welcomed a commitment from the Home Office to work with the union to improve recognition of journalistic freedoms by the police.

At a long-awaited meeting between the union and Vernon Coaker, Home Office minister, the NUJ raised a number of concerns about police treatment of journalists.

Although this was only an early stage in the development of better relations, Jeremy Dear, NUJ general secretary, said the meeting produced a number of proposals that could help NUJ members.

The union raised a number of specific issues, including the obstruction of journalists in their work – a contravention of guidelines already agreed between news organisations and the authorities – as well as the routine surveillance of journalists by police.

The Home Office accepted that police power to restrict photography in public places had been inappropriate and that more could be done to ensure police officers are aware of the existing guidelines. The government has now offered to work with the union to find ways in which those guidelines can be more effectively implemented.

Speaking after the meeting, Jeremy Dear said:

"We welcome the government’s commitment to work with the NUJ. The proof will be in the coming weeks and months when we see whether the experiences of our members in dealing with the police improve and whether they are able to work free from harassment and intimidation."

The meeting also addressed the question of production orders, used by police to force a journalist to reveal confidential source material. The union is concerned that some in the police see these orders as an easy route to fish for intelligence, particularly following the recent Shiv Malik case.

Jeremy Dear added:

"The government has agreed to investigate whether guidance can be produced to make it clear to the police where the balance falls in relation to a journalist's right to protect their sources. We'll be looking for this to include an emphasis on production orders being a tool of last resort and the need for them to be drafted with a specific and narrow remit.

"Journalistic material mustn't be seen by the police as an easy route to intelligence gathering. That would undermine the very future of investigative journalism."

The union also presented evidence of the routine surveillance of journalists by the police’s Forward Intelligence Team. The meeting has raised the possibility of NUJ involvement in the training and briefing of new officers, to ensure that they properly understand the role of journalists, and to highlight to frontline officers the needs and concerns of photographers and other journalists.

Today's meeting follows a letter by Jeremy Dear to the Home Secretary outlining concerns around policing and media freedoms.

Summing up the meeting, Jeremy Dear added:

"There's still a long way to go in ensuring that police officers understand their responsibilities to the press. However, this is a welcome first step in trying to improve relations.
"We've agreed to continue to feed concerns about specific incidents in to the minister and will be watching with interest to see whether senior figures are able to improve the understanding of these issues by officers on the ground. We will continue to campaign for media freedom to be respected at all times."

Tags: , home office, police, terrorism, press freedom, photographers