‘They Know Who I Am, They Know What I’m Doing’Arrested Journalists Speak Out over New Policing Act
Josiah Mortimer talks to Tom Bowles and Rich Felgate who were locked up for covering an environmental protest, and reports on more repressive legislation to come
Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.
Two journalists arrested at a Just Stop Oil protest on Monday (November 7) have told Byline Times they believe they were deliberately targeted in an effort to disrupt coverage of the climate campaign group.
Photographer Tom Bowles and filmmaker Rich Felgate were attending Monday’s Just Stop Oil shutdown of the M25 motorway – and were both arrested within 10 minutes of the police’s arrival, despite offering to show officers their press cards. It follows a similar arrest of LBC reporter Charlotte Lynch covering Just Stop Oil on Tuesday.
All three journalists were arrested under “suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance.” It is a new crime that was brought into law this year through the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and faces prison time of up to ten years in jail.
Treating Reporters as Activists
Bowles told Byline Times he was standing on a public footpath in view of the gantry a Just Stop Oil protester climbed. “We started taking pics. The cars eventually stopped, and police arrived after 10 mins. I heard a police officer say ‘detain those two’. It was slightly odd – you don’t hear that often.”
An officer then came up, pushed Bowles away and put handcuffs on him, saying “I’m arresting you”. “I said I’m a member of the press. I said ‘I could show you my press card, you’re stopping me from doing my work’.” They dragged him off into a police van – and drove for nearly an hour to Stevenage police station. “I kept mentioning my press card. But I was put in a cell.” A duty solicitor arrived at 9:30 pm, nine hours after he was put in there.
It was then he found out the police planned to raid his house. When released at 1:30 am, he heard the story from his wife and 14-year-old daughter who were the only ones at home when three male officers burst in at 11 pm. “My wife is strong but others would have broken down,” Bowles said.
The freelance photographer was fortunate that Rich Felgate – while being arrested – managed to film his arrest. It is now likely to be evidence in a civil legal challenge both journalists are bringing against Hertfordshire Police. While Charlotte Lynch has received an apology from Hertfordshire’s Tory Police and Crime Commissioner, Bowles and Felgate have not.
What scares both journalists is that it represents a shift in how policing is conducted in the UK. “It’s never happened to me before. I interact with the police loads. I always ask to speak to the officer in charge or media liaison and show my press card,” Bowles told Byline.
Felgate added: “They weren’t interested in seeing press cards…It beggars belief they could think two guys with pro cameras at a protest are somehow undercover, pretending to be journalists to evade arrest.”
The documentary maker told Byline Times: “My first film, Finite: The Climate of Change, has just premiered at Leeds International Festival. On Sunday, it was screened at the prestigious Aesthetica Short Film festival too. Then the next day I’m criminalised for doing that same work.”
“And the police were still questioning me: repeatedly asking ‘are you a protester?’. They just weren’t taking my work seriously. I found it really disrespectful. I wasn’t going to say ‘are you a police officer? How many crimes have you solved recently?’” he said.
Hertfordshire Police’s Tory crime commissioner went on LBC and suggested the media should not report on Just Stop Oil – and instead should treat it more like the reporting of suicide – in other words, not noting their message or intentions. “I found it outrageous. I’ve been heading towards the conclusion that there’s a pattern emerging – the motivation is to make the protests ineffective by stopping the media coverage. Physically disrupting it, criminalising journalists, intimidating us so we don’t go there.”
It is not the first time he has been targeted. In October, Felgate was filming a climate protest roadblock in Shoreditch. “Loads of press and public were there. But I got ambushed by about five officers, who pinned me up against the wall, and put handcuffs behind my back,” he said.
Met Police officers told him they saw him pass a “fire extinguisher” in the National Gallery – referring wrongly to the incident of a Van Gogh painting being covered in soup, which he had also filmed. “It’s like they weren’t even trying to make up a good story…I didn’t even interact with the protesters there. The police weren’t even there. It felt like they were making something up to get me off the streets,” the documentary maker told Byline.
It felt like intimidation tactics: “They know who I am, they know what I’m doing. Random officers say hello with my name – they do that with protesters. They do that to remind people they’re keeping tabs. To let them know they’re watching.”
And it has raised fears that police took the decision to deliberately ignore the police-recognised press identification cards both possess.
Police Chiefs’ Phone Records Deleted after Contact with Priti Patel Over Extinction Rebellion Murdoch BlockadeTim Corkett
Police also allegedly made attempts to access the phones of the journalists. In Rich Feldgate’s case, they asked him repeatedly to tell them his PIN. This would normally be a severe breach of protocol as it would put anonymous journalistic sources at risk. Felgate told Byline he is still concerned they may have accessed his phone records: “Who knows what happens when your phone is sealed up in a bag? We just don’t know. We do know there’s a massive surveillance operation in this country. So it’s quite worrying…They were not realising the gravity of asking a journalist to turn over their sources and collaborate with the police, and invade my privacy.”
Felgate is planning to take legal action for wrongful arrest, and false imprisonment – which could result in hefty compensation. But both journalists are primarily looking for an apology which has not been forthcoming.
The law that Felgate and Bowles were arrested under the PCCS Act passed in July. It was aimed at groups like Extinction Rebellion – but is now being used to arrest journalists. “The charge of ‘conspiracy to cause public nuisance’ is no joke,” Felgate says.
More Clampdowns to Come
More draconian legislation is coming down the line. Law reform group Justice has said the arrest of journalists could “become commonplace” if the upcoming Public Order Bill passes into law. The provides new stop and search powers for police which may allow for the detention of anyone suspected of intending to join an obstructive protest, Press Gazette reported. It is at Committee Stage in the Lords, and close to becoming law.
Meanwhile, former Home Secretary Priti Patel’s UK’s National Security Bill threatens to “criminalise” public interest journalism and whistleblowing, as it will water down protections against police accessing journalistic materials, the same paper reported. It is currently in Report Stage in the Commons and is likely to face criticism in the Lords.
Jun Pang, Policy and Campaigns Officer at Liberty said: “The reports we’ve heard of the arrests of journalists are deeply concerning. Press, film crews and journalists should be able to cover protests without fear of being harassed, having their footage seized or being arrested.
“This is being enabled and encouraged by the Government’s dangerous assault on protest rights. With the ink on the Policing Act not yet dry, the Government is trying to resurrect dangerous anti-protest proposals that the people and Parliament have already loudly rejected just months ago. The new Public Order Bill expands stop and search powers, creates protest banning orders, and brings in a raft of new offences that target tactics most often used by climate justice protesters. It will impact everybody’s rights by striking at the heart of what makes protest effective and widening the criminal dragnet.”
FEARLESS, INDEPENDENT JOURNALISM & INCREDIBLE VALUE
Receive the monthly Byline Times newspaper and support quality, investigative reporting.
The group said ministers had created an “increasingly dangerous working environment for journalists” who face intimidation and arrest for simply doing their jobs. “The Public Order Bill will have a chilling effect on the right to protest, criminalising anyone attempting to make themselves heard,” Pang said.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, added: “Filmmakers and photographers play an important role in relaying accurate information and quality journalism to members of the public. Journalists have every right to protect their sources and should not be pressured into revealing private communications. Hertfordshire police have threatened press freedom and disregarded the right of journalists to cover protests. No reporter or other bonafide news gatherer should fear being placed in a cell for doing their job.”
The union leader also expressed grave concerns over the National Security Bill, saying it conflates journalists “with spies”. “By criminalising journalists for their reporting, the bill poses a significant threat to both public interest journalism and press freedom,” she said.
Hertfordshire Police told Byline Times that it is reviewing its handling of journalists at protests: “Primarily, officers have been instructed to ensure they conduct full and thorough checks before making an arrest decision, as well as getting a final approval by a supervisor before making any arrests of anyone who is identifying themselves as press. Further guidance on dealing with the press has been reiterated to officers during briefings. We’re still waiting for a force to be formally appointed for the review.”
A National Police Chiefs’ Council Spokesperson appeared to rebuke Herts Police in a statement to Byline Times: “Journalists have a right to report at any form of protest and the freedom of the press is essential. When you’re there and policing, there is a huge amount of pressure to swiftly move things on and it is regrettable that journalists were caught up in that. All protests come with an enormous amount of pressure for policing,” the spokesperson said. “Journalists shouldn’t be prevented from legitimately doing their jobs.”
A Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times: “These are inflated and spurious claims. Offences in the National Security Bill target harmful activity by states, not leaks or whistleblowing.
“We want to protect press freedoms – and that’s what our Public Order Bill does. Previously protesters have tried shutting down printing presses, which is completely unacceptable and our Bill is designed to tackle this kind of disruption.”