Police officers cannot be above the law

Today’s Guardian reports that Sir Paul Stephenson, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has “privately lobbied the home secretary to make it harder for people to take legal action against his force.”

Since 2006 I have sued the Metropolitan Police twice and it’s not been an easy process. It is time consuming, expensive and at times exhausting. In 2006 I was assaulted by Metropolitan Police officers when I was reporting on a protest in Parliament Square. I was taken to St Thomas’ hospital by ambulance and could not work for month. When the case settled two years later in 2008 my solicitor, Chez Cotton said:

This was an extremely unpleasant incident. Neither the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police or his officers has any legal power, moral responsibility or political responsibility to prevent or restrict what the media record. Mr Vallée is a well-respected photojournalist, lawfully present to photograph a political protest outside parliament, yet he was brutally prevented from doing so by the police. It is right that Mr Vallée has received an apology, an out of court settlement and that his legal costs will be met by the police.

In late 2008 video journalist Jason Parkinson and I were unlawfully stopped by Metropolitan Police officers from reporting on a protest outside the Greek Embassy. This case settled early this year and our solicitor, Chez Cotton once again, said:

The media play a critical role in recording civil unrest, political events, including protests and demonstrations and, where it arises, police wrong doing. It is of grave concern that an armed, diplomatic officer of the Metropolitan Police Force felt it was appropriate to call these journalists ‘scum’ and stop them from working and was happy to do so in full knowledge that he was being filmed. My clients were physically prevented from reporting on protest and political unrest of international importance.

These are just two of the many case that journalists – with support from the NUJ – have taken on to defend media freedom. For many the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) route is a non-starter. Many photographers have found the IPCC to be far from independent and highly bureaucratic.

Bottom line, when the police act outside the law and attack human rights and media freedoms by physically attacking media workers then the police should be held to account for such actions. It seems that Sir Paul Stephenson has other ideas.

Is this about cost-cutting in the short term or is it a more calculated strategy to give his officers a freer hand when policing the public reaction to the political and economic shockwaves of the coalition governments austerity measures. And to remove those that will give that movement the oxygen of publicity?

Marc Vallée

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