On Sunday the 21st of April 2013 nine journalists travelling to Brighton to cover ‘March for England,’ a gathering of Britain’s far-right along with members of various racist organisations were stopped and seven of them searched by Sussex Police. Initially they were told the search was being made under the Terrorism Act.
The journalists thought it reasonable when a police car over took them and ordered via a digital screen that they were to follow. They were after all a minibus full of mostly white people heading to an event that would be populated by angry far-right racists. They were guided to a car park and garages in Hickstead a few miles away from Brighton where police were already busy searching members of the far-right.
Being exposed in this was a worry to the press as Casuals United, a group of far-right football hooligans and English Defence League supporters had called for the targeting of Argus journalists on the day of the March. The Argus is a Brighton based newspaper, but it was understood that no journalist was safe from attack.
Due to these threats the journalists were eager to identify themselves as press so that they could leave quickly without unwanted attention being brought on them. The officers were shown press cards but took no notice. Press cards carry the follwing message:
‘The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) of England, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland recognise the holder of this card as a bona fide newsgatherer.’
A phone number is provided to a hot line so that verification can be given by the UKPCA in the form of a password that is known only to the UKPCA and the journalist.
The advice given to police officers using Section 60 to stop and search suspects by ACPO, who recognise card holders as bona fide news gatherers, is that ‘Officers may question the person to confirm or eliminate reasonable suspicion for grounds for the search’ (Practice Advice on Stop and Search, ACPO and Centrex, p10, 1.6).
Sussex Police estimated that around 250 members of the far-right and approximately 1000 counter-protesters were in Brighton that day. They drafted in over 700 officers to police the event. It was reported that by the events conclusion at 6pm, 19 arrests had been made. To help make those arrests Sussex Police were authorised to use powers under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. This gives police the power to stop and search those they ‘reasonably’ believe may be carrying weapons and become involved in acts of violence. Not the rescinded Terrorism Act they had quoted as the reason for the search.
Once reasonable suspicion had been eliminated the officers should have discontinuing the search. Instead, when asked why they did not recognise press cards, one officer said that, “the officer in the car [the car that pulled the minibus over)] had started the process, so we are obliged to finish it.’ Yet another said of a BAJ member’s press card, “Anyone can print one of those off, they don’t prove anything.”
Journalists being journalists, they recorded the encounter. One photographer used an iPhone to film the incident and a videographer began filming as soon as they could.
On release, they began tweeting and were overwhelmed by the number of retweets and messages of support. There was a high level of disgust at the idea of police using Section 60 to search journalists. The NUJ was quick to speak out and posted a statement online condemning the search. The police themselves took to twitter and apologised for the incident but quickly thought better of admitting fault and deleted the tweet.
But journalists being journalists, a copy of the tweets were taken before they were deleted.