Hertfordshire police admit unlawfully arresting journalist at Just Stop Oil protest

Exclusive: Force says it falsely imprisoned photographer covering M25 climate action

A regional police force has admitted it unlawfully arrested and violated the human rights of a photographer who was held while covering climate protests on the M25.

Ben Cawthra was one of four journalists arrested by Hertfordshire constabulary while covering protests by Just Stop Oil last month. Supporters of the climate campaign had climbed gantries to disrupt traffic on London’s orbital motorway.

A previous investigation, commissioned by the Hertfordshire force, concluded “police powers were not used appropriately” in making the arrests, but stopped short of admitting they were unlawful.

Now, after Cawthra began legal action, Hertfordshire constabulary have admitted their officers acted unlawfully by arresting him and violated his right to free speech, and the force has accepted liability for false imprisonment over his detention.

Cawthra’s lawyer, Jules Carey, of Bindmans, said the case represented an important clarification of the principle of freedom of the press. “It is vital to the health of a democracy that journalists can work without fear of arrest or detention by the police,” he said.

“We welcome the prompt admission by the chief constable of Hertfordshire that Mr Cawthra’s arrest and detention for 16 hours was unlawful and constituted a false imprisonment, and we strongly support the recommendation that all public order officers undertake the College of Policing/National Union of Journalists’ training, which explains the rights of reporters and photographers during public order situations.”

On 7 November, Cawthra, a director of the picture agency London News Pictures, who has been a photojournalist for two decades, drove to Hertfordshire after becoming aware that protests on the M25 were planned by Just Stop Oil, according to a letter before action sent to the Hertfordshire constabulary.

After spotting police officers lying in wait in an unmarked car close to the town of London Colney, Cawthra parked his car and stationed himself nearby on a public footpath on a bridge overlooking the motorway.

From his vantage point, he saw and began taking photographs of a man climbing a gantry. As more police began to arrive, an officer came over and asked Cawthra to stay where he was.

“Mr Cawthra responded to say that he was on a public footpath, and that he had the right to leave at any point, though he said that he would comply with the officer’s request,” the letter said

The officer then asked to see Cawthra’s press ID. However, the officer did not call the number on the card to confirm his credentials, and instead asked to see his driving licence, as Cawthra continued to photograph the protest.

Minutes later, the officer returned and arrested Cawthra on suspicion of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. He was taken to Hatfield police station and held for 16 hours.

Two other journalists were arrested that day, and a third the next day. Outrage grew after Charlotte Lynch, an LBC reporter, went public about her arrest, leading to criticism from ministers and human rights organisations.

Amid the outcry, Hertfordshire constabulary asked an outside force to review the circumstances around the arrests. The investigation concluded frontline officers had been directed to arrest journalists by their seniors, without developing sufficient grounds to do so.

Cawthra and the other arrested journalists have already received a letter of apology from the Hertfordshire chief constable, Charlie Hall. But now, after the legal action, the force will pay Cawthra compensation for his unlawful detention. He has also called on the police to ensure officers complete training on the rights of journalists during public order situations.

A Hertfordshire constabulary spokesperson said: “The chief constable has apologised to the journalists arrested in connection with the matter of policing M25 protests, and he had asked for a review, which was undertaken by Cambridgeshire constabulary. The recommendations made in the review regarding learning have been accepted.

“Our officers acted in good faith throughout, but mistakes were made. The police do not wish to comment any further on individual cases which are under legal consideration.

“The police force is committed to protecting the public and businesses in carrying out their lawful activities.”


Damien Gayle

The GuardianTramp

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