The government’s authoritarian anti-protest laws aren’t only targeting peaceful political demonstrations – they’re being used to target journalists reporting on them, too.

‘Intentionally or recklessly causing a public nuisance’ was made a criminal offence—potentially punishable by ten years in prison—by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. (Jana Shnipelson / Unsplash)

On 8 November last year, LBC reporter Charlotte Lynch was on a bridge over the M25 taking photos and videos of a protest by campaign group Just Stop Oil. Two male police officers from Hertfordshire Constabulary approached her and asked who she was. She explained and showed them her press card.

That should have been their cue to leave her alone. Instead, the police put Lynch in handcuffs and took her phone. She was loaded into the back of a police van and taken to Stevenage Police Station, where officers searched her, swabbed DNA samples from the inside of her mouth, and took her fingerprints. She then spent five hours in a cell before being released without charge.

Charlotte Lynch isn’t the only journalist to have received that treatment. Photographer Tom Bowles and filmmaker Rich Felgate were also arrested while covering a Just Stop Oil demonstration the day before. Felgate later tweeted that the pair were kept in custody for thirteen hours, during which he said police tried to get him to ‘reveal journalistic sources’ and ‘give them the pin to [his] phone’, and that Bowles’ home was searched and his daughter’s iPad taken.

All three of the arrests were made ‘on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance.’ ‘Intentionally or recklessly causing a public nuisance’ was made a criminal offence—potentially punishable by ten years in prison—by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. Tabled by then-Home Secretary Priti Patel, the Act took aim at protests by groups like Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter and the ‘annoyance’ and ‘inconvenience’ their demonstrations caused, and was criticised in Parliament and the press and protested on the streets for the chilling effect it would have on peaceful displays of political dissent.

But when it passed, the authoritarian impulses that drove it still weren’t satisfied. As the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill made its way through Parliament, the government made a last-minute attempt to tag on a set of even more draconian measures to combat the rise of actions by Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain. The amendment containing them was defeated, but the government has since revived it in the form of the Public Order Bill now passing through the House of Lords.

The implications of the Public Order Bill for protestors are terrifying enough. If passed, it’ll criminalise ‘locking on’ and ‘going equipped’ to lock on (which could mean as little as linking arms or carrying a bike lock), widen suspicionless stop and search powers, and create new Serious Disruption Prevention Orders—also being termed Protest Banning Orders—which can limit individuals’ movements, restrict their internet usage, and even see them electronically tagged.

What the experience of Charlotte Lynch and others indicates is that it’s not just protestors being affected. Journalists, legal observers, and other bystanders—members of the public taking photos on their phones, for example—have no guarantee that those new police powers won’t be used on them, too. As a briefing by human rights organisation JUSTICE points out, the only protection these groups have is the defence of a ‘reasonable excuse’ for their presence, the inadequacy of which is already clear:

‘Arguably, the police should not arrest journalists even under existing protest laws because they will be aware that this defence exists. Policing should be proportionate and preclude the arrest of people who would be able to rely on the defence, like journalists. In practice however, journalists are being arrested.’

You could argue these arrests are unfortunate accidents. Speaking on the release of a review published later in November, Hertfordshire Chief Constable Charlie Hall said that while it ‘correctly concluded that the arrests of the journalists were not justified, and that changes in training and command need to be made, it found no evidence to indicate that officers acted maliciously or were deliberately disproportionate.’ But the result is the same: as the JUSTICE briefing continues, ‘By the time [journalists] are released, often hours later, the damage will be done because the journalist will have been unable to do their job.’

And for political figures on the warpath against protest, limiting press reports about protests might not seem like such an unwelcome side effect. That’s if you can say it’s a side effect at all. In an LBC interview in the days following the arrests, Hertfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner David Lloyd said that as a society we should work out how to ‘ensure that the oxygen of publicity which Just Stop Oil is seeking is moderated’. That’s not to say he doesn’t support a free press, he added—but LBC’s editorial policy needs to ‘reflect whether or not we want to be part of the problem, which is how Just Stop Oil are managing to get their message out there so very successfully.’ As Rich Felgate pointed out on Twitter, Lloyd was ‘saying the quiet part out loud’.

It’s not hard to imagine who these attempts to stem the ‘oxygen of publicity’ will affect the most. As the National Union of Journalists’ open letter to Suella Braverman points out, the plans to curtail individuals’ right to freedom of expression through the Public Order Bill will disproportionately affect the communities for whom genuine freedom of expression is most urgent. When it comes to media coverage, if a staff member at a major mainstream outlet like LBC, with a press card, can find themselves locked up for hours for covering a protest, what might happen to a member of the public taking photos to post to social media? If the Public Order Bill passes, what might happen if that member of the public is also carrying a bike lock?

It’s not new to say that the commitment to freedom of expression maintained by the government and its actors is superficial at best—a value it likes to roll out on issues like cancel culture, quickly jettisoned when it comes to expressions of dissent against, for example, hereditary monarchy—and it’s not a coincidence that its squeeze is tightening at a time when falling living standards are giving rise to a fresh tide of public anger. If we let the already loose definition of ‘nuisance’ expand to include even coverage of or attempts to inform about protest, sympathetic or otherwise, the slope into authoritarianism we’ve been riding the past few years quickly gets much steeper.

This week, members of the House of Lords will table an amendment to the Public Order Bill to protect journalists and others monitoring protests from its provisions. Any political figure who claims to maintain the most basic belief in the most basic civil liberties should back it. Better still, of course, would be to throw out the whole vicious bill, and the vicious government that tabled it, too.

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