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Nicked if you do, Nicked if you don't by Mike Holderness

NICKED!? These people are (a) protesters about to pull up genetically modified maize near Warminster last summer; (b) activists pretending to be journalists doing a feature on radioactive mad cows in order to reach said maize; (c) journalists masquerading as demonstrators to get through a cordon of genetically- modified police; (d) subversives working for the BBC because the actual journalists are locked into a cow byre behind that hill; (e) police disguised as any of the above in hopes of gaining intelligence; (f) journalists pulling up mad maize after losing the plot in an eco-warrior bender situation; (g) innocent passers-by who have just arrested themselves in order to confuse everyone else; or (h) just confused.

Photo: Ben Edwards/i-Contact

In the Thames Valley, it seems that journalists covering demos may get arrested on the grounds that they are protesters in disguise. In Birmingham, the only way that journalists can get close to a major news story is -- you guessed? -- by disguising themselves as protesters.

Photographer Nick Cobbing was arrested in Oxford on 12 December -- merely for leaving a demonstration, it seems. When the event, one of a series of animal rights demos, quietened down, he "told a senior police officer that I wanted to leave, and showed him my NUJ press card," Nick told the Freelance. Then two different police officers arrested him for leaving the demo, under Section 12 of the Criminal Law Act 1986.

Nick says he told the arresting officers clearly, three times, that he is a journalist, covering the event for the German news-weekly Stern, and they should note the press card around his neck. Fortunately, a colleague had the presence of mind to get Nick's film from him.

An Italian TV camera operator, a random passer-by and Roddy Mansfield of the Undercurrents video group were also arrested. When Roddy's colleague Paul O'Connor called Thames Valley Police, Press Officer Janet Malcolmson explained that press cards are forged by animal rights protesters. She had no recollection of saying anything about forgeries when the Freelance later spoke to her, but stressed that the Thames Valley Force had encountered "people claiming to be journalists and press photographers and subsequent enquiries have shown that they are not." She did not know who had done this, or where, or when.

The NUJ Press Card is (officially) recognised by all UK and Ireland police forces. It carries a Metropolitan Police telephone number which any officer can call to confirm a journalist's identity using a PIN number.

At the suggestion of London Freelance Branch, NUJ General Secretary John Foster is writing to all Chief Constables, asking them to remind all their officers of the working of the Press Card. The Union would be interested to hear any concrete reports of impersonation or of forgery.

Meanwhile, in a different part of the forest: the Freelance understands that journalists have resorted to impersonating protesters to report the eviction of those obstructing the romantically-titled Birmingham Northern Relief Road. The alternative is to check in at a Rugby Club clubhouse four or more miles from the action, presenting a special BNRR press card.

Successful applicants are driven in a mini-bus by security guards to a fenced press compound, equipped with a tower for still and TV photographers. Protester Muppet Dave tells the Freelance that the tower is not visible from interesting parts of the action. BBC West Midlands senior correspondent David Gregory says the view is adequate. The fence around the eviction site was made opaque with plastic sheeting on 12 December. During the first week of December this arrangement was enlivened variously by a BBC crew strolling onto the site and being evicted, and by two agency reporters diving out of the minibus and making a run for it. The Freelance is not aware of any charges or threats of prosecution. Bailiffs simply ban entire news organisations. Live TV and BBC TV West Midlands are among those to receive this accolade.

David Gregory stresses that the ban, following enthusiasm by "an alleged chief news correspondent who is leaving anyway -- for other reasons" has been sorted out. He understands that the Highways Agency, bailiffs and the police are concerned about the safety implications of a lot of hacks running around an eviction site. The protesters object to his crews filming certain things, too. Anyway, "we are getting video footage out -- the protesters have cameras of ours, and ITN and Sky have cameras in there too."

Hang on -- now we have protesters working as journalists, because of the Highways Agency reporting ban.

The 1998 NUJ Annual Delegate Meeting passed a motion, proposed by London Freelance Branch, instructing the National Executive "to call, organise, finance and attend dignified collective defiance by journalists of future reporting bans."