London Indymedia

NUJ drops support for Indymedia?

a member of the NUJ | 24.03.2006 17:22 | G8 2005 | FBI Server Seizure | DSEi 2003 | Analysis | Indymedia | Repression | London

The National Union Of Journalist held the first part of its Annual Delegate Meeting today. Within the 175 motions to be officially decided during the two-day conference was one of particular relevance to Indymedia...

Which hat do you have on?
Which hat do you have on?

Motion 30 (the full text off which can be read below) contained what many might see as a direct reference to Indymedia (although the motion does not actually specify any particular organisations).

This motion basically calls upon the NUJ to stop supporting news services which do not "distinguish between the role of reporter and the role of participant." There are probably not too many of those in and it certainly covers Indymedia with its ethos of removing the mediation of the news by providing the tools for anyone to report their own stories.

Don't Hate The Media, Be The Media

Journalists who make their living from working for mainstream news services are, understandably, just as worried by the rise of citizen journalism as are the TV company executives watching falling viewing figures as people increasingly turn to the web for news and entertainment. A few months ago, the NUJ magazine 'The Journalist' ran a double page feature on citizen journalism. The London bombings of July 7th showed how increasingly it is 'amateur' footage and photos that are being used to cover such stories.

Motion 30 was passed today - against the recommendation of the Standing Orders Commitee. It is perhaps another indication of the conscious or subconscious fear that professional journalists have of their voluntary counterparts. One of the few branches to stand against the motion was the London Freelance chapter.

What does the passing of this motion mean in practice? Well, it probably doesn't mean anything but it's difficult to predict and it is worth noting that the NUJ was actively supportive of Indymedia after the FBI seized the servers in October 2004. Had this motion been passed prior to the seizure, it is highly doubtful that the NUJ would have gone out of it's way to offer support.

It appears that Indymedia not only fails to distinguish between the participant and the journalist, but also seems not to distinguish between the journalist and the participant. Many indymedia contributors, like myself, are paid up members of the NUJ. Some retain traditional copyright on the material they post while others donate freely to the public domain and creative commons.

As a NUJ member myself, I find the fact that the motion has been passed mildly worrying but I can't quite put my finger on why exactly. I do actually agree with the majority of the motion (bar the last key sentence). Contrary perhaps to Indymedia itself (if Indymedia can be considered to hold beliefs), I DO believe that there is a distinction journalists and participants. That doesn't mean I value the reports of the participant any less than that of the observer (the opposite in fact) but I do see a difference and I do feel that if the police are to respect press freedom (which is essential for a free and democratic society) then activists should also respect the need not to blur the line by, for example, using a press accreditation to breech security as part of an action.

The second from last part of the motion indicates that this is also a real concern for the NUJ, perhaps relating to specific cases. It seems likely that the reason for the motion has emerged from discussion with the police authority around the issuing of new guidelines to police officers about respecting the freedom of the press.

Press Freedom

The relationship between journalists and the police was the subject of the last London Freelance chapter meeting which was held at the House of Commons earlier this month. The meeting was attended by Brian Paddick, Deputy Assistant Commissioner in the Metropolitan Police who had been instrumental in pushing through a set of guidelines issued to all police in London last month that spell out the rights of journalists.

Jeremy Dear, the NUJ's General Secretary, opened with a definition of "press freedom" taken from wikipedia. 'Freedom of the press is the guarantee by a government of free public press for its citizens and their associations, extended to members of news gathering organizations... It also extends to news gathering, and processes involved in obtaining information for public distribution.' "It is not just the right to report, but the process of reporting that we are talking about.", he said.

The G8 was used as a classic example of Police obstructing press freedom. Journalists were restricted to pens; physically prevented from taking photos; assaulted when trying to take photos; having material seized; film removed from cameras; stopped and held for hours and therefore missing deadlines etc.

Photographer Molly Cooper talked about a confrontation she had had while photographing peace activist Milan Rai being arrested outside Downing Street for breaching the controversial new law that prohibits protests. Despite showing her press card, a police officer forced her to take a leaflet which warned that she faced arrested for being part of an unofficial demo. "That legislation causes us endless entertainment...", Brian Paddick observed, but reassured the gathered journalists that the new guidelines would apply when covering events near Parliament or anywhere else.

Pennie Quinton, radio broadcaster and videographer, told how she had been filming for Indymedia at the 2003 DSEi protests when a policewoman grabbed her camera out of her hands. Pennie offered her NUJ card but was still searched and arrested her under Section 20 of the Terrorism Act. I have also experienced similar incidents despite showing my press card; from being detained and searched under Sec 44 of the terrorism act, to being arrested after filming an arrest.

Unlawful suppression

Whether these are examples of police deliberately trying to restrict reporting is a matter of debate. Brain Paddick is not convinced, "There may be the isolated occasions when police officers don't want something reported, but more often it'll be a side-effect of officers' over-zealous effort to keep the area around an event or disturbance 'sterile'". I'd agree with him here, however, deliberate or otherwise, the effect of the police over-zealous behavior is the unlawful suppression of press freedom.

"We have made it clear in the new guidelines, that officers have no power to seize cameras or photographs", Brian reminded the meeting. "Thankfully arrests are rare.... usually," he added, after a pause. He readily acknowledged, however, that "there are unfortunately situations in which police officers overstep the mark and we need a way to ensure that those officers are held to account."

Brian Padock became a household name when he revealed his views about the state on (for example the two threads [">1 | 2 ] which includes the famous quote about the concept of anarchism).

At the meeting he summarised his views by simply stating that, "The constitutional position should be that we are accountable to the public." Surprisingly candid he also said that, "Unfortunately there are colleagues of mine who feel that to protect the reputation of the police... they have to cover things up..."

At another point he said, "I do despair at the behaviour of some of my colleagues. It was a challenge to get these guidelines agreed. Some senior officers who have more to do with Public Order than with media relations were not at all happy."

Quid pro quo

Apparently some of the opposition to the guidelines had been on the lines of "well, anyone can get a Press Card". Of course that isn't true - to get an NUJ card you have to be proposed and seconded by other NUJ members and show evidence of journalist employment in the form of commissions, invoices, bank statements etc. Brian told the meeting, "We have been able to convince them. The guidelines are accepted and these senior officers have no choice but to implement them."

While police officers might not be happy, the NUJ appeared over the moon. Jeremy Dear expressed the delight that the guidelines had finally been issued, after initial false announcements in September 2000 and May 2002. "These guidelines are vital and we welcome your real commitment to putting them into practice." he said.

So, it seems likely that the motion that was passed today is part of a strategy of reinforcing the traditional devisions between the profession of journalism and the subjects of journalism - consciously or otherwise a quid pro quo with the powers that be.


Motion #30

ADM reiterates the union's fundamental commitment to diversity of views and pluralism in the media, and its commitment to support journalists and ethical journalism in particular in non mainstream media, political newspapers and magazines, and in alternative media.

ADM recognises that the union has a long and proud tradition of defending the right of individual journalists to have access to information and events and to report freely without hindrance from authorities.

ADM believes that such a right must be conditional on a clear separation of our role as journalists from participants in the action or events we are covering.

ADM therefore calls on the Ethics Council to examine cases where journalists are involved in direct action and issue guidelines for those journalists and their use of the press cards in such circumstances, in particular where their role as journalists and as participants may become blurred.

ADM instructs the NEC not to lend support to organisations that do not recognise the importance of distinguishing between the role of reporter and the role of participant.

a member of the NUJ


Additional guidelines about the police guidelines

24.03.2006 19:40

For anyone wondering what this police guidelines say, here is a short summary...

Every police officer in London will now be instructed that "Members of the media have a duty to take photographs and film incidents and we [the police] have no legal power or moral responsibility to prevent or restrict what they record". Whether this will make any practical difference in the way police behave remains to be seen. John Toner of the NUJ has said, "We do not expect that this will eradicate all problems, but we do believe that there should be a marked difference over the next couple of years."

Rather than produce the full text of the guidelines here (you can follow the URL given in the article above if you want the whole thing) here are some key points.

"Members of the media have a duty to report from the scene of many of the incidents we have to deal with. We should actively help them carry out their responsibilities provided they do not interfere with ours."

"Members of the media do not need a permit to photograph or film in public places."

"Where it is necessary to put cordons in place, it is much better to provide the media with a good vantage point from which they can operate rather than to exclude them, otherwise they may try to get around the cordons and interfere with police operations. Providing an area for members of the media does not exclude them from operating from other areas to which the general public have access."

"Members of the media have a duty to take photographs and film incidents and we have no legal power or moral responsibility to prevent or restrict what they record. It is a matter for their editors to control what is published or broadcast, not the police. Once images are recorded, we have no power to delete or confiscate them without a court order, even if we think they contain damaging or useful evidence."

"To help you identify genuine members of the media, they carry identification, which they will produce to you on request... It has a number of security features and is recognised by the Association of Chief Police Officers for England and Wales (ACPO) and by its sister organisation in Scotland, ACPOS."

"Each UK Press card has a unique serial number. Each cardholder has a separate personal identification number or word. By using the hotllne - 0870 837 6477 - anybody can verify that the card is genuine and that the holder is a bona fide newsgatherer."

"The card also has several secret security features in addition to the verification hotline. These are only revealed to the police or similar authorities. The card is produced using similar technology to the photo driving licence, with the photograph and design integrated into the structure of the card."

"Every card carries the logo of the issuing organisation or the holder's employer together with the holder's name and the card serial number. And no card is valid for more than two years, ensuring a periodic review of the holder's right to have it."

It is important to stress that while these guidelines refer heavily to 'bona fide newsgatherers' and the press card scheme, freedom of the press is not limited to those individuals who choose the apply for the card. Conversely, people carrying a press card and working for a 'bona fide newsgatherer' do not suddenly become exempt from laws that apply to everyone else. The law, and human rights should apply equally,

Clark Kent

Motion 30 and Indymedia - Comment and Clarification

26.03.2006 09:27


Thanks for this report. It's an important issue.

However I have to disagree on a couple of points. Importantly you say: "It seems likely that the reason for the motion has emerged from discussion with the police authority around the issuing of new guidelines to police officers about respecting the freedom of the press". This is wrong.

The London Freelance branch was responsible for the discussions regarding the latest guidelines for police on press freedom. As you correctly note the London Freelance branch also opposed motion 30. In fact it was Oxford Branch that proposed the motion.

If you look at Motion 30 (text above in original article), the whole body does indeed address the issue of journalists reporting protests and direct action, and calls for the Ethics Council to look at the area and issue guidelines. This, I think, everyone will agree is a welcome proposal. Too often journalists are singled out for arrest when covering protests and in particular direct actions, from Greenpeace to any number of rainbow coalitions.

It's the final paragraph which goes one step beyond, floating around like some disconnected decision, not really following any logical thought.

"ADM instructs the NEC not to lend support to organisations that do not recognise the importance of distinguishing between the role of reporter and the role of participant."

As you correctly identify, this looks like it could have been worded to hit out at Indymedia, since the Indymedia mission statement clearly trumpets "Indymedia erodes the dividing line between reporters and reported". It could of course target many blogs or self publishing projects as well.

In your article you said the Standing Orders Commitee recommended that Motion 30 not be passed. This isn't quite correct. In fact the Ethics Committe themselves proposed an amendment deleting that last paragraph.

The Standing Orders Commitee simply noted that the amendment as proposed by the Ethics Committe would have rendered the motion "out of order", since it removed the part that instructed the ADM to actualy do something. So to be clear, it was the Ethics Committee that was unhappy with motion 30.

Overall I think this is not such a big deal. It certainly does address the inner turmoil of the journalist profession as part of a wider debate about "citizen journalism". There were several other motions speaking of Citizen Journalism, worrying about both pay and concerns over protecting union members rights, as well as issues over the safety of the general public who may be encouraged to enter dangerous situations in order to snap a picture on their camera phone etc (witness the bruntsfield field depot fire and much of the dramatic public footage played out on the major TV network news). Recently the NUJ also issued new guidelines on Citizen Journalism that addresses much of this, including the need to protect the copyright of members of the public who submit material to the corporate media.

With regard to Indymedia, I doubt motion 30 removes any support. At many of the larger protests, such as G8, IMF / World Bank etc, where I have attended Indymedia Centres as a photographer, there have been temporary IMC press cards issued to volunteer reporters. These have been issued with a warning, often in the form of a statement you have to sign, that says you cannot engage in direct action or any illegal acts while using the press card - oviously in order to protect other media workers reporting the protests. There have also been safety briefings for reporters who will be covering protests on the streets. This clearly then recognises the issues involved in fulfilling the role of reporter.

In short motion 30 was badly put together. Taken together with the other motions addressing citizen journalism they raise important questions and illustrate some of the current ethical challenges facing journalism. But as to targeting indymedia itself, I doubt it.

nuj member


Display the following 7 comments

  1. Another rotten union — ex-unison
  2. Journalists only have themselves to blame... — Copernicus
  3. Spectators only, please... — Emile
  4. In a sense you are a edited newspage... — Mr Bingham
  5. Lies Lies and more Lies — photographer
  6. Distinctions — Martyn
  7. Reporter and Participant — NUJ Member


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