Solicitors acting for the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) are to make a formal complaint to the Data Commissioner over the failure of the Met police to provide details under the Data Protection Act of their surveillance of journalists.

The NUJ is also complaining about apparently contradictory claims by the police as to the existence of a database containing images of journalists.

In May, head of public order policing (CO11) Commander Bob Broadhurst told the NUJ Photographers’ Conference that journalists could be photographed if they were regularly seen at protests, but told the audience: “There is no [CO11] database as such”.

However, the Metropolitan Police disclosed in March to Liberty that “there is indeed a database of images, searchable by name, held within CO11”. The disclosure came as part of a successful legal challenge backed by the civil liberties organisation over the power of the police to photograph peaceful attendees at protests.

Commander Broadhurst at the NUJ Photographers Conference

At the time, the Metropolitan Police said that those listed on the database were those suspected or observed in unlawful activity, and photographs of others who were present but were believed to be acting lawfully were not included.

Press card

Commander Broadhurst also told the NUJ conference that he had no faith in the validity of the National Press Card, a UK-wide identification system for journalists.

“I don’t know what vetting system there is … can anybody apply for a card?” he asked during the debate at the NUJ’s Photographers’ Conference. “Who is doing what, either legitimately or otherwise? How do we know what [journalists] motives are? … Can any people have one? Anybody? What’s the vetting?”

The UK Press Card is issued through member organisations of the independently-run UK Press Card Authority. Applicants have to prove they are both bona-fide newsgatherers, and that they have a need to identify themselves to police or other authorities in the course of their work. The card includes several security features, including a tamper-proof photograph, PIN-style identification number, and a hologram.

A police officer from the Forward Intelligence Team photographs and videos those present at a protest.

Broadhurst’s statement was angrily received by those photographers at the conference, who were stunned both at his ignorance of the press card system – which was first established 18 years ago at meetings initiated and chaired by police representatives – and outraged at his belief that it was the job of the police to judge the motives of accredited professional journalists.

Recent developments

When pressed at the conference by NUJ Legal Officer Roy Mincoff Commander Broadhurst promised a written reply. However, four weeks later no reply has been received.

However, a Parliamentary answer on the 2nd of June revealed that CO11, was conducting a review of all photographs taken of individuals, raising suspicions that any photographs of journalists could be deleted before the Data Commissioner would be able to examine the intelligence on journalists gathered by police.

Recent developments in technology could increase the power and usefulness of any photographic database. In 2006, the Police Information Technology Organisation (PITO) set up the FIND project (Facial Images National Database). The objective of the FIND project is to use facial recognition technology in conjunction with national database of facial images for use across all UK police forces.

While police maintain that they aren’t building a database of journalists, suspicions remain that they are building a database of all those involved in protest – whether personally, fleetingly or professionally.