Refuse the Met's demand for footage - An open letter to the BBC

An open letter to the BBC calling on them to mount a strong defence of the confidentiality of its journalists’ material and sources in response to the Met's demand for footage.
Guy Aitchison
5 April 2011

I have just sent the following complaint to the BBC in response to the news that the Met are requesting unbroadcast footage from March 26th. If you agree that the BBC should not become another wing of the surveillance state, please feel free to adapt this letter and do the same here - and sign the online petition here.

Dear BBC Management,

I was disturbed to read in today’s Guardian that the Metropolitan police have made contact with BBC journalists to request unbroadcast footage of the protests in central London on March 26th (Police ask BBC for cuts footage).

Speaking as a participant in a variety of anti-cuts campaigns, I have to concur with Jeremy Dear, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, who warned that this is nothing more than a “fishing trip” by the Met which could have very serious consequences for the integrity and safety of journalists covering future protests.

There is already a tense and uneasy relationship between activists and members of the press as a result of the frequent distortions propagated by the mainstream media and its habit of uncritically reproducing the police’s narrative of events. It took a full week following the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests, for example, for the true story of police brutality to emerge after footage released by a passer-by reversed the police’s false and self-serving account which had been parroted by an obliging media.

There is currently a vigorous debate being had within the anti-cuts movement about the effectiveness and acceptability of different forms of protest and direct action. Clearly, there is legitimate disagreement to be had here, but one thing is for certain. As popular anger against the cuts rises we will see many more instances of disorder and unrest on our streets alongside acts of civil disobedience, such as the kind UK Uncut engage in.

If the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, genuinely aspires to impartial coverage of these events it is imperative that it does not pressure its journalists into the role of police intelligence gatherers and proxies.  Already, there is a worrying precedent for this kind of collaboration. Following the G8 summit in Edinburgh in 2005, BBC Management disgracefully caved into the demands of police detectives and allowed them to view extensive footage without a court order. It is to be hoped that they have learnt the lessons from this experience.   

In response to the Met’s request, BBC Management should now issue a public statement mounting a strong defence of the confidentiality of its journalists’ material and sources.

Yours sincerely,

Guy Aitchison

Update: The BBC have replied with the following message. If it is to be believed, it seems they're not going to be handing over hours of footage to permit the kind of fishing expeditions the Met want. Instead, the Met will need a court order to demand specific footage. Let's hope the  BBC keep to their word. It's worth keeping an eye on as they're especially vulnerable to political pressure at the moment and the Met is eager to make arrests having been caught on the backfoot on March 26th. 

Dear Mr Aitchison

Thank you for your e-mail. 

We recognise your concerns following media reports on possible requests made by the Metropolitan Police Service, for footage recorded by the BBC at the Anti-Cuts protests held in London on 26 March 2011.

Please be assured that the BBC holds huge importance on the protection of the confidentiality of journalistic material. 

It is the BBC's policy to hand over unbroadcast material only on service of a Court Order. This policy ensures that the police follow proper procedures when seeking unbroadcast material: in particular with regard to the notice we are given. 

We will be adhering to this policy with regards to any formal requests from the Met for unbroadcast material of the Anti-Cuts protests. The representation we make when facing an application for a Production Order will of course depend on the circumstances of each case, not least the need to protect confidentiality.

Kind Regards

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