The moment when journalist and photographer Adrian Arbib was served with an injunction preventing him from photographing an environmental protest at Radley lakes, 2007. Photo: still from video by Adrian Arbib.
Journalists doing their job are not 'domestic extremists'
22nd November 2014
Six journalists are taking the UK Government to court after discovering that they are listed on its 'domestic extremism' database just for reporting on protests, or undertaking inconvenient investigations into state or corporate misconduct. Adrian Arbib is one of them ...
The British state is all too ready to abuse its powers by turning them against legitimate and peaceful campaigners, protestors, dissidents of various stripes - and the media.
Wander around Thrupp lake, a disused gravel pit near Abingdon and you'll be mesmerised by the golden hues of autumn leaves, and the tranquility punctuated by the calls of terns, geese and ducks. Look a bit harder and you'll see egrets, fieldfares, kingfishers and a host of other birds.
The place is swarming with wildlife. Otters have reportedly been seen here, a sure sign of a well established ecosystem. It's also people friendly, with boarded out walkways, wooden bird hides, and information signs. It's a beautiful, well cared for place.
But just seven years ago, in 2007, all of this was to be destroyed. The energy company NPower, operator of the now-closed Didcot A coal-fired power station, wanted somewhere to dump their fly ash - half a million tonnes of it.
And since they owned the land at Thrupp lakes - where they and the former CEGB had been filling lake after lake for decades - dumping their coal ash there was, they claimed, their cheapest option.
All the surrounding trees would be cut down, the water drained out and the toxic ash poured in. The site would be capped off and fenced with 'Danger' signs, as with other lakes nearby.
A lake too far!
For the locals who regularly walked around Thrupp lake its impending destruction was the last straw. Objections were strong but polite. Why couldn't NPower use other means of disposal for the fly ash - increasingly sought after for making Portland cement, pour-on screeds, lightweight 'thermalite' blocks and other building materials?
And they were up against a surprisingly heavy-handed security operation for what was basically a local protest. NPower's balaclava-clad security guards - many of them ex-military as I found out later - filmed every movement of the protestors.
My own involvement was as a freelance journalist and photographer and National Union of Journalists (NUJ) member.
One day I received a phone call from a local who told me to get down to the lake as quick as I could as NPower contractors were cutting down trees in an area long used by kingfishers for breeding and feeding - and kingfishers are protected under the EC Habitats Directive, and our own Wildlife & Countryside Act. Destroying their habitat is a criminal offence.
Within minutes of arrival I found the scene and was filming the felling of trees in the very place where, a few weeks earlier, I had photographed the iridescent jewel of a Kingsfisher.
Hit by a legal sledgehammer
Minutes later I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a team of balaclava'd security guards in hi-vis jackets and two men in pinstripe suits approaching me carrying a pile of papers.
The suits were lawyers who served on me an injunction that NPower had obtained from the High Court the day before, which applied to anyone who even knew of its existence it, no matter who they were or what their business.
The injunction - granted in a secret hearing based on the anonymous and unchallenged evidence of security guards - created a seclusion zone around the lake, and forbade filming or photographing NPower employees and contractors. Breaking the injunction would result in a five year jail sentence.
Fortunately I was already filming while they came up to me, and I showed them my NUJ press card. Although the fact that my video camera was running as the injunction was served on me potentially put me in breach of the injunction.
But NPower's heavy-handed action achieved precisely what the company, part of Germany's RWE power giant, did not want: it got the story into the national news.
As Jon Snow observed in his report on Channel 4 News (see video, above), "it is a cautionary tale of how some large corporations are able to suspend some basic human freedoms we thought we enjoyed." And as the C4 reporter Alex Thompson said, "In effect covering the story of the destruction of the lake is now a criminal offence."
The injunction was later successfully challenged by the NUJ and the wording altered to allow reporting by the press. The embarrassment also caused to Npower to abandon their plans to fill the lake with ash. Ultimately the lake and surrounding land was handed over to a local wildlife charity, the Earth Trust. It is now a nature reserve and well visited by locals.
'Hello Mr Arbib, we know all about you ... '
Years later in 2013 I had been covering a news story near Hastings on the building of the A259 Bexhill bypass, widely derided as a 'road to nowhere'. Protestors from the Combe Haven Defenders had set up camps along the route and climbed trees that were due to be felled.
I understood that the tree evictions were imminent so I climbed up a rope to get a good vantage point for photographs from a tree platform.
After a day and a night on the platform I decided to get down. within minutes I was surrounded by security who attempted to pin me to the ground. I explained I was a member of the press. Their team leader said: "OK we know who you are. Escort him off site lads."
The next day I met him and other members of his team at the perimeter fence. They addressed me by my name though I had never divulged my identity ... so how was that?
Last year the NUJ notified their members that for £10 anyone could ask the police for any records that they might hold on the Domestic Extremist register. The incident at Hastings sprung to mind, I applied.
What came back was short but it did hold some interesting observations: "Arbib is a known environmental protester"; "Arbib appears to be a professional photographer with an interest in the environment".
There was more. An incident was also logged where I had been identified undertaking the highly subversive action of photographing apple orchards close to Heathrow airport for a feature on apples for the Guardian.
However It was the first statement which bothered me. The word 'known' had an Orwellian ring to it. It indicated another layer to this that wasn't being shared. Where was the evidence for 'known'.
I had photographed a lot of the protests in the 1990's including road protests at Twyford Down, Newbury, Solsbury Hill and other sites, covering it extensively for the Guardian newspaper and other news outlets. I eventually ended up publishing a book on it.
You could say that I specialised in photographing protest but I did a lot of other kinds of photography too. I travelled to India, Sudan and Zimbabwe for the likes of Christian Aid, I worked for the BBC and Channel 4 as a stills photographer and completed lots of features and portraits for a variety of magazines.
A good photographer knows his subjects
While studying photography in the 1980's l learned that every good social documentary photographer achieved their best works because they were close to their subject matter.
Eugene Smith, one of the most famous, put his heart and soul into photographing the Minamata chemical leak in Japan. He got beaten up for his efforts by the company that were trying to keep the story silent.
So I stand by rule that if your pictures aren't good enough you're not close enough. You need to know your material. All the best work that I've done has been due to research, a passion for the subject and time spent on the ground.
And while no Eugene Smith myself I've got close to my subjects to get the story. I'm often sympathetic to them, but not always. But whether I am or not, it's essential to know them and understand them. When Leo Regan photographed his book Public Enemies about neo-Nazis in the UK it didn't mean he was a neo-Nazi.
None of my activities have ever taken me into the realms of illegality. For me to feature on the Domestic Extremist Database seems at best absurd and at worst deeply sinister.
It should be of huge concern to everyone that this data is being held on journalists. It is the journalists who get silenced first in a totalitarian regime.
Five other journalists in the same boat
And it's not just me. Six NUJ journalists (myself included) find ourselves in this position and backed by the NUJ we are taking legal action against the Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the Home Secretary to challenge this ongoing police surveillance.
Amongst other things, our aims are to have the data they hold on us destroyed - and to find out, if possible, where this information is being shared and by what criteria it is gathered.
My colleagues - all of whom have similarly covered protests and have done stories on the police or held corporations to account - have thicker files on them than I do. Jules Mattson, for example, has information on his records delving into the medical history of one of his family members - amongst many other things, and much of it is patently wrong.
I was delighted with the statement by our lawyer Shamik Dutta, from Bhatt Murphy solicitors, that "Journalists who seek to expose corporate and state misconduct are entitled to legal protection which enables them to do their job."
Shamik also questioned "how it could possibly be reasonable, proportionate or necessary for the police to monitor and retain information about journalists for any purpose, let alone for the purposes of policing 'domestic extremism'."
Now: 'extreme disruption orders'
But the story does not end here. I'm deeply concerned that the Home Secreary, Theresa May, is now proposing a further clampdown on civil liberties by creating a legal mechanism that would further impact so-called 'domestic extremists'.
Under her proposals, even people whose activities are entirely within the law could be subject to so-called 'extreme disruption orders' if they "undertake harmful activities". The orders would be issued by a High Court judge on an application from the police based on a legal test of 'balance of probabilities'
The orders could ban individuals from broadcasting or speaking at public events, or from being with other named people, or from being in specified locations, and force them to get police permission to attend any public event, protest or meeting, and before publishing anything - even on social media.
Theresa May says the measures are aimed at those who would "spread, incite or justify hatred against people on grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation or disability" - but this could be a slippery slope.
We already know how police and prosecutors have used anti-terrorism legislation against peaceful protestors - in many cases against people who were not even breaking any law, like the case against Juliet McBride, an anti-nuclear weapons protestor at Aldermarston.
I and my fellow appellants also know how the wrong people can end up being labelled 'domestic extremists' - and that's not just journalists but also people who have done no more than organise environmental meetings.
While no one wants to empower the small minority of people in this country who represent real danger to the peace and security of the realm, the state already has enormous powers and resources at its disposal.
And to judge by its shabby record, the British state is all too ready to abuse its powers by turning them against people in ways that were never envisaged or intended by legislators, including legitimate and peaceful campaigners, protestors, dissidents of various stripes - and the media.
The last thing we should allow is for the state to take on yet greater powers, only for them to turn against us when it suits them, and further restrict the freedom of the media that holds an essential role in any free and democratic nation.
Adrian Arbib is a freelance journalist and photographer.
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