Media wins Dale Farm video battle

Media organisations have won their High Court battle against orders forcing them to give police footage of evictions from Dale Farm.

The production orders made by Judge Gratwicke at Chelmsford Crown Court in February at the request of Essex Police were quashed today.

ITN, the BBC, BSkyB, Channel 5, Hardcash Productions and freelance video journalist Jason Parkinson joined forces to oppose the orders.

Their lawyers said the media risked becoming seen as "coppers' narks" if they were required to hand over footage.

Quashing the orders at London's High Court, Mr Justice Eady, sitting with Lord Justice Moses, aid Judge Gratwicke "failed to give sufficient weight to the inhibiting effect of production orders on the press".

The footage was shot over the two days of the evictions on the Dale Farm site near Basildon on October 19/20 last year. There were scenes of violence as the police dismantled barricades.

Gavin Millar QC, appearing for the media organisations, argued at a one-day hearing last month that the orders were excessive, unlawful and a disproportionate interference with the media's right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

He told Lord Justice Moses and Mr Justice Eady the police were increasingly seeing production orders for footage of public disorder as a "convenient way to access evidence that may be used in court".

Today's ruling focused on key provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Pace).

Pace says there must be reasonable grounds for believing that production orders will be "of substantial value" to police investigations before they can be made.

Essex Police said the Dale Farm orders were necessary because there were reasonable grounds for believing that the journalistic material being sought "would be likely to assist" investigations.

In a written judgment handed down today, Mr Justice Eady said it was difficult to dispute there was a real public interest in tracing people involved in public disorder or violence.

But that had to be set against the level of interference with the media's Article 10 rights inherent in production orders.

He said it had been for Essex Police to demonstrate that the "degree of interference" and the wide scope of the production order was "necessary and proportionate" - but there was "nothing to justify any such conclusion".

The judge said: "Because the cupboard was bare when it came to demonstrating that the material would be of substantial value to the police investigation, the claimants were denied a fair opportunity to demonstrate to the (Chelmsford) court why much, if not the totality, of their material was unlikely to be of any assistance."

Disclosure orders could be "of great value" said the judge but "can never be granted as a formality".

Lord Justice Moses agreed and said: "The judge (Judge Gratwicke) should have feared for the loss of trust in those hitherto believed to be neutral observers, if such observers may be too readily compelled to hand over their material.

"It is the neutrality of the press which affords them protection and augments their ability freely to obtain and disseminate visual recording of events.

"There was no basis on which the judge could dismiss the evidence of a number of witnesses of the effect of handing over a vast amount of film, whether under compulsion or no.

"Still less should he have done so in the furtherance of a merely speculative exercise."

The judge added that nothing he had said should discourage the police from seeking to obtain material "likely to contain evidence to assist in successfully prosecuting those who participate in violence".

"But it is not easy to do so and it should not be easy."

The judge said he hoped today's ruling would assist in identifying "the need for specific and clear evidence and grounds for making production orders".

The fact that Judge Gratwicke was unable to justify the order he made "stemmed from the inadequacy of the evidence and the grounds advanced by the police".

Later, ITN chief executive John Hardie said: "This landmark decision is a legal recognition of the separate roles of the police and independent news organisations.

"We fought this case on a matter of principle - to ensure that journalists and cameramen are not seen as agents of the state, and to protect the safety of our staff.

"The requests from Essex Police didn't relate to specific incidents of serious criminality and amounted to no more than a 'fishing expedition' to see what footage ITN and other news organisations held on the Dale Farm evictions.

"We hope that this decision will lead to fewer requests from police for unbroadcast footage of demonstrations and public disorder, and rein in what has become an increasingly worrying trend."