Belfast Telegraph

Police trawls for riot pictures are doing damage to media

By Paul Connolly

Surprisingly, perhaps, it's fairly rare for media groups to co-operate - even in matters of mutual interest. We're usually too busy trying to out-scoop, or commercially out-manoeuvre, one another.

That's actually a very good thing, because it is competition that drives excellence, both in terms of journalism and in commercial vitality.

There is, however, a current hot potato that's managed to unite virtually all of Northern Ireland's main daily or Sunday news-gatherers and that's the issue of blanket police trawls for pictures of alleged rioters.

It's a bit of a thorny one, because, at an instinctive level, every right-thinking person wants to see rioters and those responsible for violent disorder on our streets face justice for their crimes.

However, it's also incredibly important that the media are able to report, explain and analyse disturbances, too - and that means being there to record them.

Recently, a Press photographer was shot in the leg during rioting in east Belfast. Another, a cameraman, told how a bullet ripped through his trousers.

In both incidents, it is believed the media was deliberately targeted by rioters and their paramilitary cohorts.

It is the fear among local media groups that a recent upsurge in police applications for what are felt to be 'fishing expeditions' has contributed to a menacing hostility against journalists at riot scenes.

At the Short Strand riots, for example, it is believed the PSNI had more than 70 hours of its own video footage, which had not been viewed by officers . . . yet still police commanders instructed their lawyers to pursue media groups for untransmitted images without first weighing up the totality of material available from their own cameras.

Media representatives are now so concerned about the safety of journalists at disturbances, and mindful of the duty of care they owe their own staff, that they have written to the Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, protesting at the growing tendency for the PSNI to attempt to obtain blanket court orders to seize all material. They fear that our ability to explain what happens on the streets of Northern Ireland is about to be undermined and curtailed.

Surely it would be much better for the police to actually use the courts to force the news media to hand over material only as a last resort? Not as a first recourse, as appears to be the growing practice.

It would be a crying shame if riots, disturbances and other news stories were ever to go unreported because of the over-zealous pursuit of evidence that may, or may not, be useful in prosecutions.

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