Any news story starts with a single question. When I put in my first call to npower’s press office I knew the when, the where and the how. But what I didn’t know was the why: Why had an accredited press photographer been served with a High Court injunction and threatened with a five year jail sentence for simply doing his job ?
Three months on, even after the injunction has been lifted from members of the press I’m afraid to say that I’m still none the wiser.
“First of all, the injunction is not about stopping news reporting at Radley Lakes” began their spokesperson, before I’d even finished my question. So why had a news photographer been legally injuncted from taking news photographs ? I had to ask the question five times before I got an answer: which was, they didn’t know. They’d get back to me.
In a written statement later that day, npower said – apparently with a straight face – that the injunction served on news photographer Adrian Arbib to stop him taking photographs “does not stop media reporting”. Before I had time to mentally unravel that conundrum, the statement went on to add: “we WANT media to report so we can give our side of the story” (their use of capitals). Well, if so, they certainly have a funny way of going about it.
If npower genuinely want wider coverage of the Radley Lakes story, they must be more confident than I would be in their position. The plain facts of the case, undisputed by either side, are that a multinational company bought a much-loved local beauty spot, populated by otters and kingfishers, with the express purpose of dumping thousands of tonnes of ash there from the fourth most polluting power station in the world.
And while I’ve no doubt that their press office is full of dedicated, hard-working individuals, I really can’t imagine any of them leap out of bed in the morning with enthusiasm, given their PR strategy hinges on debating on blogs as whether to the exact percentage of arsenic, cadium and lead in the ash means it can be referred to as “toxic”. In press officer parlance, it’s the kind of story that “doesn’t spin well”. As a general rule, if you’re a PR, you don’t really want to be putting the words “dumping”, “beauty spot”, “arsenic”, “cadium”, “otters” and “kingfisher” in the same press release.
The stories we cover on the EPUK website take a deliberately narrow remit to reflect our membership. So the sole issue we addressed in the Radley Lakes case is why one of our members, a respected environmental photographer, was prevented from taking photographs and earning a living. But in trying to understand the truth of the matter, it is impossible not to form opinions on the bigger issues involved.
For example, having read the court papers, it became very clear to me, that the injunction was granted on the flimsiest of unchallenged evidence, largely made by anonymous witnesses who knew they would never have to appear in court. Almost all the witnesses were receiving money from npower in one form or another, whether as employees, contractors or consultants. The one statement seen by EPUK which is made by someone not in the pay of npower consisted largely of hearsay evidence, which would in any case be generally inadmissible in court. And there is, npower’s solicitors have since acknowledged, at least one serious error of fact in at least one of the statements.
What was happening in February at Radley Lakes didn’t really amount to much. So npower based their case on what could theoretically happen in the future. Even npower’s own expert witness conceded that it was difficult to predict whether the protest would escalate into a full scale illegal protest, or whether it would remain on the right side of the law.
And therein lies the problem for those opposing it: attempting to prove that something won’t happen is significantly more difficult than saying that it might. I think Natalie Portman might drop by my house this evening begging for a date. Now you try to prove that she definitely won’t. And without using my byline picture.
So the reason the injunction bans the carrying of “hammers, nails and rope” within a mile of the site, is not because these have been used to disrupt npower’s activities, but because it was speculated that they might be so used in the future to construct traps or spike trees. That no trees had been spiked, nor any traps constructed, was neither here nor there. And the reason photography was banned was not because photographs of contractors had been used maliciously, but because they might be in the future.
One of only two npower employees who gave a statement alleged that as he drove out of the Radley Lakes compound a protester reached into their bag “as if to take out a camera”. No picture was actually taken, but to follow npower’s reasoning, that’s no reason that photographs might not be taken in the future to incite direct action against their employees.
“Only slightly afraid”
Not that there had been any violence against the security guards. The most serious evidence that npower could muster was that a security guard’s leg was (in the words of his colleague) “brushed” by a protester’s vehicle one night: not hard enough to leave a bruise, but troubling enough to leave the thesaurus-owning Witness E “scared”, “shocked”, “traumatised” and “threatened” following the incident.
The statements also list a remarkable number of overheard private conversations and phone calls which were made by protesters when secuity contractors were within earshot. Now either the security guards have ears like fruit bats, or they have an uncanny ability to be within listening distance when private conversations happen. Witness C, a security guard, reports that while being interviewed by a reporter, a protester allegedly states of his willingness to get backing from extremist animal rights groups to “rip [the security guards’] hearts out”. Another security guard’s statement consists entirely of an incident in which the same protester described the security team as “the enemy”. The guard rather boringly admits that this made him “only slightly afraid”; an unusual anticlimax to a three page statement. Perhaps he should have borrowed Witness E’s thesaurus.
While these statements are presented by npower as evidence of a real and present danger to the security guards, it is clear from other overheard conversations involving the same protester that he could be described most favourably as prone to exaggeration. And the impression that I got at the time from the witness statements of the protester was that he was more of a danger to himself than others. Indeed, since then, the only damage he has inflicted has been to himself: a broken arm and a cut artery sustained during a frankly hare-brained attempt to flee from police custody through an air vent.
But what the court never heard were equally disturbing – and uncorroborated – allegations regarding the conduct of the security guards at the site, who, it is alleged, threatened to urinate in protesters’ water containers, destroyed swans nests, served injunctions themselves. shot at and injured wildlife, and blocked a public right of way by standing in the middle of it, telling members of the public that to go along the path would mean passing within five yards of them, and so breach the injunction. All or none of these allegations may eventually turn out to be true, but they deserve to be heard and tested in court.
Through the looking glass
To try and view the situation from npower’s position is to take a trip through the looking glass. Watching the video footage of Adrian Arbib being served with the injunction, I voiced the opinion that the four black-clad balaclaved strangers approaching him on an isolated country road was a somewhat intimidating spectacle. “Well, it may look that way to you”, chastised the spokesperson, suggesting that most reasonable people would be filled with elation at the opportunity to make new friends out of the approaching seventeen-stone masked heavies.
Except don’t call them that. The word “heavies” was frowned upon when I used it in an offhand way during conversation with npower’s press office. But let us face facts. There is a reason that npower’s lisping security firm Shercurity hire ex-soldiers, not ex-librarians. These are not men employed for their love of poetry or the opera. However strict their discipline and training may be, they are hired because they represent a potential threat of physical force, and are so plainly intended to intimidate. So the sight of these masked men presenting injunctions on members of the public under anti-harassment legislation transcends satire.
And let us not forget that the same security guards who found it distressing to be photographed, filmed and watched by protesters, were themselves photographing, filming and documenting what the protesters were doing.
While I can live with spin, since we began investigating the story I have been aware of the constant and pervading whiff of a pudding being over-egged. In one of my first calls, while trying to understand why their solicitors had served Adrian Arbib with the injunction, the spokesperson began to defend the whole basis of the court order, asked rhetorically: “But what would you have done if you or your family had been threatened ?”
Well, the simple answer would have been: I would contact the police, rather than putting injunctions on the reporter who knocked on my door later on to ask me about it. But I was more interested in what appeared to be evidence of a sudden escalation in the threat to the safety of npower personnel. When had these threats to family happened ? Who was responsible ? What did the police say ?
There was a pause at the end of the line. “I don’t want to go into that”. Only when I pressed the matter further did the spokesperson admit that there had been no such threats. “Forget I said that”.
A slip of the tongue ?
Which I did. It’s easy to make a slip of the tongue, and wrong to treat a simple mistake as an attempt to deceive. Except, a week later, I was reading an online article by a respected industry journalist from a well-regarded publication. It quoted a npower spokesperson, and said that their staff had been identified after photographs of their car registration numbers had been published on websites. This was evidence that destroyed all opposition to the photography injunction: there was a clear and present danger against which the injunction needed to protect.
I phoned npower. “I don’t know of any such websites”, said the first spokesperson. It was a “misunderstanding of npower’s position”, said the second. No websites. No identification of workers. No threats to their families. Two slips of the tongue. Coincidence.
And then in what is the nearest we have come to an explanation as to the events of 16th February, npower’s solicitors, Lawson Cruttenden, admitted that Adrian Arbib was served with the injunction in what they described as “an abundance of caution”, which I can only assume is solicitor-speak for “we made a mistake”. In mitigation, they added: “When he was served, it was not clear to the injunction servers who he was”. Except, as his video shows, Arbib couldn’t have made it clearer to the solicitors that he was a member of the press. Again, it is difficult to compare this statement with Arbib’s video footage without coming to the conclusion that one of these conflicting versions of events must be inconsistent with the truth.
And when it came to Channel 4’s news report from Radley Lakes, npower’s spokesperson was again keen to impress on viewers that the serene beauty spot needed its own private militia to avoid it turning into a home counties version of the Balkans. Ill-advisedly delivering his statement in front of a steaming cooling tower, he gravely informed viewers that security guards “have had stones thrown at them”.
Like the miners strike ? Like a prison riot ? Not if he’s referring to the same incident as was used in the court evidence: one stone, one security guard, one apparently spotty adolescent egged on by his mates, who sped off afterwards in a Renault Clio and who I imagine to be extremely unlikely to be connected with the protesters in any way. There is certainly no mention of the guards having recognised him as a protester before or since.
“Having a stone thrown at me greatly disturbed and scared me” said the security guard in his statement. Many of the guards working at the site list their expertise in “close protection” bodyguard work – apparently rushing forwards to take a bullet for a client, but running scared at the threat of a pebble. To quote George Monbiot: “the security company has hired a bunch of right cissies.”
“[Security guards] have had cameras put in their face, and people have said ‘We know where you live, and your family live’”, npower spokesman Richard Frost told Channel 4 News. “Is that harassment ? I think it is, and more importantly, a high court judge thought so too”
It is harassment, pure and simple. If I were applying for an injunction alleging harassment, it would be exactly the sort of incident I would have presented in evidence. Indeed, it must have been presented as evidence for Justice Calvert-Smith to rule on it. But looking through the witness statements, I can’t find reference to it anywhere. I can only assume that my paperwork is incomplete.
Admittedly, none of this brings us any closer to solving the mystery of why a well-respected environmental photographer was handed an injunction in one hand while still displaying his press card in the other. But what I believe we are seeing is the consequence of an image-conscious multinational letting its frontline PR to be conducted by a private militia of masked black-clad ex-squaddies.
In my mind, the enduring image now associated with npower is the intimidating and bizarre formation of masked security guards and their nervous solicitors they marched towards Adrian Arbib on a lonely and isolated lane last February. I doubt it’s an image that RWE npower will be printing in their glossy annual reports.
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