When Metropolitan Police spotted some cress, apparently the ISIS of garnish, on the back of journalist and comedian Mark Thomas's bike at a guerrilla gardening rally in Parliament Square, they deemed it subversive enough to file a report.
They filed another when Thomas organised a plastic Barbie car race outside London's Saudi embassy. These and 62 more disturbing records about the Channel 4 presenter's movements, actions, writing, and broadcasts were logged in the Met National Domestic Extremism Unit's database.
Using the Data Protection Act, Thomas and five other journalists got their hands on their records only to discover the police not only consider them "domestic extremists," but have spied on them for years. The idea of the UK being a police state sounds less and less like a conspiracy theorist's fantasy and ever more like a real thing with the paperwork to prove it.
The level of detail the police kept on Thomas is both scary and impressive. "One entry notes my presence at an anti-war demo, describing what I am wearing and what sort of bike I am riding," Thomas wrote in an NUJ blog post about his files.
"You've broken no law, you have no criminal record. Why is this stuff being recorded? Who has got access to it? Who is being provided with it?" Thomas asked his colleagues at a National Union of Journalists (NUJ) meeting about state surveillance at The Guardian on the 16th of October.
To find out, he and the other journalists – all members of the NUJ who work full-time or freelance for The Times, The Guardian, and others – launched a legal claim last week backed by the union. They want their files put before a judge to determine if the secret surveillance is illegal. If the ruling finds it so, they hope it will lead to a wholesale change of police practices and get their records struck.
Jules Mattsson, a young reporter who started at The Times in 2013, is one of them. "Keeping secret files on journalists isn't something you would expect in Britain. It's deeply disturbing," he said as he worked the paper's news desk in Southwark overlooking London Bridge.
"For all we know, there could be hundreds of others on there," he warned. For a story he wrote the 11th of November, Mattsson filed a freedom of information request for mentions of journalists in the Met's anti-extremist database. There were more than 2,000 hits.
"It's clear that it's not just the six of us [who are being watched]," said Mattsson, whose own three-page file took six months to dig up. "The theme running through it is that the police think I'm a bit of a pain in the ass," he said. The file even contained a Power Point slide with "an incredibly embarrassing picture."
Police are shown slides like his during pre-protest briefings to help them pick out troublemakers in the crowd, Mattsson said. He once had a police Forward Intelligence Team, which records and photographs protests, monitor him while he worked on a story from a McDonalds. Another time, a team member followed him into a washroom.
Of course, what the police don't know, they can always make up. One entry on Thomas lists him as a VIP for the state visit of the King of Saudi Arabia. Police also placed him at an anarchist rally put on by the Class War group, when he was actually performing a live show for 500 people hours away in Warrington.
The journalists in question worry that people will believe whatever the police have written about them, since it was created by an elite police unit. "I very much doubt that the police reading this file, or any other third-party they disclose it to, will be viewing it with scepticism" said Mattsson.
The National Domestic Extremism Unit (NDEU) was created in 2011, through the amalgamation of three older organisations, including the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit. The NDEU's mandate is to "reduce the criminal threat from domestic extremism across the UK" through "tactical advice to the police service" and the passing of information to industry and the government.
Who exactly is included in the database is a mystery – information is slow to trickle out. FoI requests are supposed to be responded to in 40 days, but one of the claimants waited three years for his file. But to Mattsson's knowledge, journalists are lumped in with Green Party peer Jenny Jones, a Green Party councilor, peaceful activists and not so peaceful activists. One thing they all share in common is that they're considered a threat to the public and the state.
And it's not just the police using these files. Mattsson discovered a note in his file that shows his information had been sent on to a third-party when he was trying to get media accreditation to cover an event.
"What it comes down to is the criminalisation of journalism in the eyes of the police," said Dominic Ponsford, editor of the media industry paper the Press Gazette. This has an attendant chilling effect on whistleblowers and other sources, he continued, "because people obviously aren't going to speak to [journalists] if they're under surveillance, certainly not anyone who has something really interesting to say."
The Press Gazette launched their "Save Our Sources" campaign in September, after the paper revealed that the Met has secretly hacked journalists' phones. Using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) the police had targeted the Mail on Sunday and The Sun to get at their sources.
"If law enforcement are able to secretly grab the phone records of journalists and news organisations," said Ponsford, "then no confidential source is safe and pretty much all investigative journalism is in peril." Who would call up a journalist to get a story out if a snooping cop might be tapping the phone and listening in?
The NUJ's case falls on the heels of another launched in September by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism at the European Court of Human Rights. It charges that the UK's surveillance of journalist's communications under RIPA breaches international law. It's such a worrying issue even MPs are taking a stand. Members from all three major political parties united in the House of Commons on the 14th of October to demand the government "take urgent steps to legislate" protection of journalists and their sources.
Britain's most senior police officer, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, played down concerns about the domestic extremist database when he appeared on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on the 23rd of November.
"Some journalists are worried that their names appear on a certain database," he said. Missing the point entirely, he went on to say "from what I see, we've probably shot ourselves in the foot a bit with some of the information we've put into the public domain." But he conceded that "unless they're a criminal" journalists' records should be destroyed.
Thomas has already fought back in his own wry way. After challenging himself to take a photo of a police officer each day for 100 days, he then compiled the photos to create a calendar called "Arsey Cops," selling it at live shows.
Before Christmas, Home Secretary Theresa May is supposed to unveil a new code of conduct under RIPA. But it may still allow police decide internally whether to secretly spy on journalists. If it does, journalists are going to kick up a stink about it. "If this isn't tackled appropriately, we'll continue calling for new legislation," said Ponsford.
So far, Mattsson, Thomas, and the other journalists haven't heard from the UK's Home Secretary or Commissioner Hogan-Howe about what will become of their files and those of other journalists in the database. For the time being, it seems that the journalists are being treated much like suspected criminals.
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