Did Councillors Gag the Local Paper?
Update to article 17.00 5 March 2010
The Cambridge News published a video of the 2009 Strawberry Fair which had been presented by the police to a council licensing committee meeting on the 1st of March. Councillors objected to the publication of the video saying that it should not be made available unless it is presented, as it was at the licensing committee, alongside councillors’ questions regarding its bias. At the time of writing the video is no longer available on the Cambridge News website. I am concerned our local councillors have gagged our local paper.
I think it is right that the video ought remain accessible to the public. I have therefore uploaded a copy to “Liveleak” and am making it available via this article.
Discussing the Video at the North Area Committee
Original Article Continues:
During the Open Forum section of the North Area Committee on Thursday the 4th of March a member of the public asked the police if they thought they’d done the right thing by releasing the video of Strawberry Fair which they had produced to show the City Council licensing committee. At the licensing hearing the police used their video to support their argument that the council ought not licence Strawberry Fair this year. However after hearing a variety of differing views councillors decided to approve the application. Sergeant Wragg, who was speaking on behalf of the police at the North Area Committee, initially just ignored the question but when I pressed him to address it he handed over to Inspector Kerridge for him to respond. The inspector told the meeting he was aware councillors and others had raised concerns about the fact the police video had been released to the Cambridge News. Inspector Kerridge said he was unable to make any comment and suggested those with views on the release ought address them to the officer responsible for the video, he told the meeting this officer was: “Divisional Commander Mr Needle at Parkside Police Station”.
The Leader of the Council, Ian Nimmo-Smith, spoke to say there was: “an issue of what happened with respect to the release of the DVD which raised some public concerns in relation to data protection and child protection”. Cllr Nimmo-Smith stated his view that presentation of the video as part of a package of evidence presented to a regulatory committee was very different to publishing it in a very public, “Youtube like”, fashion on the Cambridge News website. The council leader told the committee that legal advice he has received states that the use of the video is important and using it in the committee proceedings “did not amount to publication” and “did not validate any other public use”. While the Cambridge News have said the police force released the footage to them Cllr Nimmo-Smith was not clear on this point, he appeared to me to suggest the possibility a council officer had released it. If the police have released it I can’t really imagine why the council would be taking legal advice.
Cllr Mike Pitt, one of Ian Nimmo-Smith’s Liberal Democrat party colleagues, attempted to pin his leader down as to what he meant; but no further clarification of the council leader’s position was forthcoming. Cllr Nimmo-Smith argued that when the video was presented at the licensing committee councillors had been able to question its content and the way it had been edited; Nimmo-Smith claimed that outside of that context, making the video available is inappropriate.
Cllr Rupert Moss-Eccardt, a Liberal Democrat who represents Arbury on the County Council, said that the legal principle behind the difference between the online publication and presentation to the committee had its roots in the 1848 Marriage Act, he said that if you phone the registrar and ask when someone is getting married they won’t tell you but let you know you can visit the registry office and read it on a notice board. Cllr Moss-Eccardt said that in his view: “Whoever gave the DVD to the Evening News has broken the law”. By “the law” I presume he means the Data Protection Act rather than the Marriage Act.
Liberal Democrat County Councillor Kevin Wilkins, the only elected representative from Cambridge who sits on the Police Authority and in that role oversees Cambridgeshire Police, is a member of the North Area Committee but was absent from the meeting.
My View on the Video Release
The public questioner at the North Area committee framed her question citing “pedophiles” and the fact children featured in the video. I think this is utterly ridiculous. Many people will have photographs and video of the fair which include children; it’s an event which attracts people of all ages. The apparent purpose of the police showing children in their video is to show the proximity of children to drug taking. I don’t think that “child protection” is a particularly relevant point. Anyone can take photographs and videos in public places; any footage of Strawberry Fair early in the day will most probably include children.
Openness and Transparency in Council Decisions
As the video has been part of a formal submission by the police to councillors it is absolutely right that it has been released into the public domain. I would like to see all such materials tabled at meetings, be they videos, powerpoint presentations, photographs or papers published along with the meeting’s minutes, I’ve had some success in persuading the city council to be more open with such documents. I think the Cambridge News ought be congratulated on bringing what was presented in the council’s licensing committee out to the public. Councillors don’t make getting information out of their meetings easy, they don’t allow recording (sound or video) of their meetings and appear very reluctant to make it easy to access what they do. I find it astonishing and indefensible that council doesn’t issue decision notices (or press releases announcing decisions) even when matters are of significant public interest such as the decision on the Strawberry Fair licence. Without members of the press and public at these meetings (hampered as they are in their efforts by councillors) the public wouldn’t know what their representatives were up to.
The councillors’ argument that the video should not have been released out of context is nonsense; it is clearly a police video, and to be fair to the police does so some extent portray both positive and negative aspects of the event. Residents of Cambridge don’t need councillor’s commentary to warn them that a video complied by the police might have been edited to, overall, show a particular point of view.
I am surprised that councillors did not focus on video elements which appear to me to possibly be from City Council CCTV on the common; the council policy is, quite rightly in my view, to tightly restrict how images taken by its CCTV system are used. One lamp post mounted camera is now permanently mounted on Midsummer Common, what happens to footage from that camera is something councillors have direct control over. If the police have published video from city council cameras, in breech of an agreement with the council, then that’s something which does warrant following up by councillors. If their complaint was about the police releasing those elements to the press then I would understand their point, but this was not said by the council leader at the North Area Committee. I suspect that the police were quite open about the fact they were videoing people; the council’s CCTV on the common however is poorly signed and hidden up a pole and doesn’t look like a CCTV camera; releasing photos from that does appear wrong to me. That’s where I think there is a reasonable argument – for saying the police were wrong to use footage in the way they have – but once they’ve presented it, in public, to councillors it is right to make it widely available.
My Views on Strawberry Fair
I think illegal drug dealing is always unacceptable; and it is wrong that it appears that for the day of the Strawberry Fair drug dealing takes place on and around the fair site in a blatant and open fashion and isn’t effectively tackled by the police. I hope that all those shown in the video dealing or using drugs were dealt with by the police, but I’ve not seen much evidence of that happening myself when I’ve been at the event, though the 2009 fair appeared to me to have less open drug use and dealing than in 2008. We shouldn’t allow the city to become lawless for a day.
I think there has been a problem with oppressive and inappropriate policing of Strawberry Fair, though in 2009 it was much better than 2008. I have felt the presence of of the police helicopter overhead all day and the orange epauletted intelligence gathering team police officers wielding video cameras to be overbearing and damaging to the atmosphere, yet ineffective.
Another aspect of the police relationship to the Strawberry Fair which watching is charges the police make to organisers of events for policing them. I don’t think it is appropriate to treat a free, open event like Strawberry Fair as football matches are; this is another route through which the police could seek to make it difficult for the fair to go ahead.
In terms of the event as a whole, there were massive improvements last year, what was done then needs to be repeated and improved upon year on year until the negative impacts on the city and local residents are genuinely minimised.
I hope the police’s caution (and I hope it is caution and not outright opposition) at this stage is aimed at ensuring that the council, organisers and others work with them to make sure the event is held peacefully and without serious incident this year. This is something which isn’t down to the police alone; if they feel they need to use the council’s licensing process to make sure the necessary co-operation is in place that’s not a bad thing.
I think we need better, more appropriate and less oppressive policing of the fair. I’d suggest getting rid of the intelligence collecting teams with video cameras, not keeping the helicopter overhead all day (unless there’s a specific reason it’s needed) and having well briefed, preferably local, police patrolling on the site and well into the surrounding areas – including the route between the station and the common – well into the evening.
The underlying nature of the event needs to keep changing for the better – I think it would be fantastic if the council, residents, organisers, schools, local organisations – anyone who’s interested could get together and help steer the event back towards a local community focus.
I find the Midsummer Fair has a much more negative effect on the city, and Midsummer Common, than Strawberry Fair. From my point of view as someone who regularly walks and cycles across the common I have felt much more threatened while the Midsummer Fair is on than I have done when walking through the Strawberry Fair site – which I’ve done at all times of the day. With respect to the Midsummer Fair for the last two years before the event I have calling for the increase in police presence to coincide with when people start arriving on site.
- The police video on the Cambridge News website
- My photo-illustated article on the 2009 Strawberry Fair
- My article on the conditions the council imposed on the 2009 Strawberry Fair
- Mill Road Tesco Licensing Application – I was refused access to police submissions to the hearing at Cambridge City Council; Cllr McGovern explained this was on the grounds of “Data Protection”, a spurious reason in my view.
- FOI request: Strawberry Fair Police Meeting – February 2009.