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BBC, Sky, ITN win Dale Farm footage verdict

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Police at the entrance to Dale Farm

© PA Images / Gareth Fuller/PA Archive

Media organisations including the BBC, Sky and ITN have today won a High Court battle over police orders for them to surrender film footage of the evictions at the Dale Farm traveller site in Essex last year.

Police had pursued the court orders granted to Basildon Council earlier in the year, claiming that they needed the unbroadcast footage to pursue prosecutions.

However, the High Court said that police had failed to make a strong enough case against the broadcasters, including the BBC, ITN, Sky News and Channel 5, along with Hardcash Productions and freelance video journalist Jason Parkinson.

A judge noted that the claimants, who teamed up to fight the court orders, regarded the police action as a "fishing expedition" for evidence.

Lawyers for the broadcasters and production teams said that if they were forced to comply with the orders, they would have been viewed as "coppers' narks".

Hours of unbroadcast footage was shot during the police operation to evict travellers from the site near Basildon in October last year, which descended into violence as bayliffs pulled down barricades.

The production orders were originally issued by Judge Gratwicke at Chelmsford Crown Court in February, but they have today been quashed by Lord Justice Moses and Justice Eady.

Gavin Millar QC, representing the media organisations, said that police were increasingly turning to such orders as a "convenient way to access evidence that may be used in court".

Whilst Justice Eady accepted that there was public interest in tracing people involved in potentially criminal behaviour, he said that production orders must be carefully balanced against the media's right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

"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," he said.

The judge also noted that the orders "can never be granted as a formality", and while police should be able to contact the media with requests for footage, it "should not be easy".

ITN chief executive John Hardie described the ruling as a "landmark decision" that gives legal recognition to 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," said Hardie.

"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."

BBC head of newsgathering Fran Unsworth added: "This is a significant ruling which reinforces the independence of news organisations from the police.

"Journalists must maintain their independence, must not be seen as evidence gatherers and must not have their safety compromised."

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