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?
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.
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.
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 urban75.com (for example the two threads [ http://www.urban75.net/vbulletin/showthread.php?t=362">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.
- Mike Holderness's article 'Doing our job ', from which I have borrowed heavily, can be read here.
- Information about the NUJ press card scheme can be found here.
- The new police guidelines on dealing with journalists are available here.
- The final agenda containing all the motions that went before the NUJ ADM can be found here.
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.