UK police forces increasingly regard criticism from the media as a ‘war on policing’. Journalists are being harassed, accused of crimes and arrested as a result
The frayed relationship between the British police and media has come under increasing strain in the last couple of years, as law enforcement officials continue to adopt aggressive tactics that shut down reporting. Not only have cops repeatedly threatened to arrest journalists at protests, but they’ve actually sought those individuals out - at home - to unlawfully detain them, simply for reporting on these demonstrations.
Tensions peaked when LBC reporter Charlotte Lynch was arrested while covering a Just Stop Oil protest in November 2022. It emerged that a total of four journalists had been locked up by Hertfordshire Police that week alone, following orders by top officers. Despite holding no affiliation with the protest group, these reporters were detained on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance: a new offence introduced as part of the Police, Crime Sentencing and Court Act in April 2022 and carrying up to 10 years in prison.
None of the journalists was charged with a criminal offence, a task that falls to Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service which is independent of the police.
On the day of Lynch’s arrest, Hertfordshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner David Lloyd stated that the news coverage of the protest was “adding flames to the fire” then said that reporters should “deny them [protestors] the oxygen of publicity”. He claimed: “The reason that Just Stop Oil is continuing to do this is that they know they will get publicity,” adding: “Frankly, [the protestors] have got exactly what they want by having front page news using their name every single day.”
The timing of these controversial comments raises the question of whether police deliberately arrested the journalists to silence media reporting of the protest itself and the violent tactics used to suppress activists.
Britain’s leaders are quick to condemn human rights abuses abroad: Rishi Sunak heavily criticised Chinese police for arresting a BBC journalist at a Shanghai protest that same month. But perhaps he forgot that four reporters were arrested in near-identical circumstances less than an hour’s drive from Downing Street?
Britain’s own police are exceptionally hostile to public scrutiny and criticism: decades of empirical studies come to this undeniable conclusion. They’ve been arresting and physically assaulting journalists who report on corruption for years. Not to mention sending married male spy cops to have fake relationships with female protestors.
With extremely high levels of organisational solidarity, the country’s police force is very isolated from the citizens it purportedly serves. Cops often take an “us versus them” approach to divisions in society. The net result is a siege mentality whereby rank-and-file officers all-too-frequently respond angrily - and even violently - to negative feedback from the public.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak heavily criticised Chinese police for arresting a BBC journalist at a Shanghai protest. Perhaps he forgot that four reporters were arrested in near-identical circumstances less than an hour’s drive from Downing Street?
These problematic aspects of British policing culture present a very real threat to personal safety for journalists on the ground. A significant proportion of England and Wales’ 164,000 police officers are so convinced that citizens are constantly trying to attack their profession that they have come to care only about protecting themselves. Firmly ensconced in a sub-culture that glorifies violence and aggression, their immediate response to scrutiny is to arrest the reporter in question, in many cases physically assaulting them and raiding their homes.
Tom Bowles was one of the four journalists arrested at the Just Stop Oil protests that week. Hertfordshire Police decided his mere presence warranted one of the most intrusive powers of the state: a house raid. Cops woke his wife and daughter at 11pm, so they could search the entire property from top to bottom - seizing electronic devices, including his child’s iPad - while he was still locked up.
This was no isolated incident.
Police have searched my house - without charging me with a criminal offence - twice in the past two years. Six men from the South West Regional Organised Crime Unit raided my property before dawn in December 2020, while I was alone with my one-year-old. The officer-in-charge admitted knowing I’m a journalist and even brought along a machine to download the contents of my electronic devices, in the hope I’d be foolish enough to provide the passcodes. I’m yet to uncover exactly why they visited, as they refused to leave a copy of their search warrant.
A few months later, seven Devon and Cornwall Police officers appeared on my doorstep with a Section Eight search warrant. I pointed out that this particular warrant didn’t allow them access to the property, but a male officer punched and kicked me before forcing me to the ground and handcuffing me. His colleagues searched the house and unlawfully seized all my confidential journalism material including a work laptop, iPhone, two audio recorders and notebooks.
I was extremely upset as this sensitive material included hours of audio recorded interviews with vulnerable heroin user-dealers, carried out as part of a multi-agency harm reduction initiative. My laptop and phone also contained documents from identifiable police whistleblowers.
Throughout the search, I was shocked at the officers’ overt hostility. Two of the men repeatedly told me they “hate journalists” and said “get a proper job where you contribute to society”. When I failed to respond to their comments, they angrily called me “rude” and “arrogant” for ignoring them. And when I pointed out that they weren’t allowed to take my confidential journalism, the officer-in-charge said merely: “I don’t care.” He even threatened to strip-search me if I mentioned the subject again.
Police have searched my house - without charging me with a criminal offence - twice in the past two years
Like Hertfordshire Police, who made the laughable claim that journalists wouldn’t be aware of a protest if they weren’t involved, Devon and Cornwall Police claimed to mistake my journalism for evidence of involvement in drug supply. They interviewed me under caution and alleged my court reporting was a list of my own personal drug transactions. A judge later ruled that the police acted unlawfully, yet we ended up attending three court hearings, as the officers stubbornly failed to return the journalistic material as per their legal obligations.
Cops harass journalists online
With the internet a reflection of societal trends, you can clearly observe this animosity towards journalists on social media. A cursory glance at Twitter, where numerous British cops hold accounts, shows that thousands of serving officers view external criticism as akin to a “war on policing”. Bosses and trade unions aggressively defend heavy-handed protest tactics, dangerous restraint techniques and lethal weaponry, while directing large volumes of abuse at reporters who question them.
These powerful opinion leaders adopt a victim narrative whereby rank-and-file officers are the persecuted party in debates on police brutality, racism and misogyny. They claim the “thin blue line” is a misunderstood and besieged minority group - suffering hugely - to protect society against rabble-rousing protestors, harmful immigrants and “police-hating” journalists.
Senior law enforcement figures increasingly use their personal social media accounts to dominate and shape public discourse on law enforcement. They frequently label critical reporters as “anti-police” or “agenda-driven”, all dog whistles to a certain kind of cop. Within hours, there are usually thousands of offensive responses to the journalist in question.
Silencing critical journalists
As a journalist, deviating from the police’s desired narrative often feels like a David-and-Goliath contest. England and Wales’ police had a budget of £15,877 million in the financial year ending March 2022, with London’s Metropolitan Police alone spending more than £10 million on media relations. The National Association of Police Chiefs spent £350,000 on a single Instagram account with 19,400 followers and 732 posts that same year.
Press officers are hostile to journalists who report on law enforcement failures. The manager of the Metropolitan Police press office telephoned me in April 2022 and asked me to delete a tweet whereby I’d publicly asked a police chief a difficult question. In response to my refusal, he said the Metropolitan Police would “sue me for libel” - an act that isn’t possible under British case law - unless I removed the question.
Last year, a Metropolitan Police press officer informed me that she needed my home address, date of birth and other personal information, after I offered her a straightforward right of response to a British tabloid news article. She claimed that the force keeps these details “on file” for all reporters and declined to respond when I refused to provide such personal detail.
The police interviewed me under caution and alleged my court reporting was a list of my own personal drug transactions
I’m always asked to explain my “agenda” or “angle” when making an inquiry. But it should make no difference to the press officer: they should reply politely and helpfully regardless. The reality, of course, is that this question is a thinly-veiled attempt to find out whether you intend to write a positive article or perhaps something more reflective of the sorry state of British policing.
Though opposition politicians blame the ruling Conservative party for reducing journalistic freedom, the sad reality is that this issue persists no matter who rules the country: the police locked up countless journalists for reporting on the huge anti-war protests that characterised the Blair years.
Britain’s police have a well-documented history of labelling mainstream media journalists as “domestic extremists” for reporting on political protests and campaigns. There are many reported instances of officers using anti-terrorism legislation to record journalists’ conversations or to stop-and-search them.
Each year, officers are asked to inform bosses whether they know any news reporters, as they do with “convicted criminals” or “extremists”. It’s clear there’s a longstanding perception among the country’s law enforcement chiefs that journalists are unsavoury - or potentially disreputable - individuals for employees to associate with.
So though it’s tempting to argue that the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill makes it easier for cops to arrest journalists at protests, the reality is that - for an organisation that’s determined to prevent scrutiny of its actions - it’s simply one of many readily-available tools for silencing reporters. Unfortunately, the real issue in police-media relations is much deeper and thus more difficult to solve: it lies with a problematic law enforcement culture and not the legislation.
Rebecca Tidy is a freelance journalist specialising in public and social policy, with a focus on prisons, drugs and nationalism
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance