Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: News gathering not for police to exploit

In the coldly logical environment of a courtroom a request by the PSNI for news organisations to hand over unseen footage of last month's rioting in Belfast to help officers identify law-breakers may be viewed as a legitimate public interest application. Indeed, that was the view taken by Judge Piers Grant who ruled that the material should be given to police.

From the outset it must be stressed that the media stands four-square on the side of law and order, but it also has legitimate objections to this development.

Newspapers and television crews venture into all sorts of situations - including highly dangerous scenes of violence - to record events as they happen. It is, if you like, the first draft of history written and recorded by independent observers.

In order to perform this duty safely and honestly, the news organisations have to be seen as impartial reporters bringing to the general public as full and rounded accounts of events as possible.

Lest anyone think that claims this ruling could endanger reporters, photographers or cameramen are exaggerated, it is well to remember that a photographer was deliberately targeted and wounded by a gunman during rioting in east Belfast recently. It is not stretching credibility to suggest that the media would be even more likely to be in the firing line if they are seen - as a result of this judicial ruling - to be potential evidence gatherers for the PSNI. Effectively they are being forced into a position of being an arm of the forces of law and order, a proxy arresting officer.

The likely outcome is that news organisations will withdraw their staff from situations where they would find themselves in a conflict of interests, and whose interest would that be in?

It certainly would not be for the benefit of the public or even the concept of democracy which depends on an independent, impartial and free press to inform, educate and initiate debate.

Surely with the sophisticated equipment available to the police they should be able to accumulate their own evidence against rioters.

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