Northern Ireland

News organisations fight PSNI request for riot footage

Journalists could be seen to be police evidence gatherers if they are forced to hand over unseen footage of rioting in Belfast, a court has been told.

Lawyers for news organisations are resisting a legal bid by the PSNI to compel them to hand over unbroadcast and unedited material.

Police are seeking footage and photographs from 11 and 12 July.

News organisations claim it could lead to an increased safety risk for camera crews and reporters.

Hijacked vehicles were set on fire and thousands of pounds worth of damage was caused to property during the rioting in north and west Belfast.

More than 40 officers were injured as mobs attacked police lines with petrol bombs and other missiles.

Freedom of the press

A judge was told that material released by the media following a similar application after disorder last summer was crucial in 15 successful prosecutions.

The case centres on competing claims between the public interest in convicting the troublemakers and the threat to the freedom of the press.

A detective sergeant in charge of coordinating evidence gathering told a court in Belfast the requested, unbroadcast footage was likely to be of substantial value.

He said people have provided information in the past after similar material was shown.

The detective estimated that police have less than 10 hours of their own footage, and claimed that recorded by news organisations may be of better quality.

He told the court CCTV recordings from a PSNI helicopter of a hijacked and burning car rolling into a crowd of people at Ardoyne was of poor evidential value.

According to his assessment press gathered at the scene may have better quality images of the incident.

Counsel for the PSNI urged Judge Piers Grant to "rule in favour of the interest in securing convictions and order production of the material".

But a lawyer for the BBC argued that handing over the unseen footage may increase the risk to the safety of news crews.

"That may impede the ability of an organisation such as the BBC to inform the population about what is going on in the streets of the city," he said.

'Evidence gatherers'

"There is the safety issue in terms of journalists themselves, and the chilling effect these orders may have."

He added that there was a fear broadcasters could be seen as becoming "auxiliary evidence gatherers for the police".

A lawyer for UTV, who also opposed the application, argued that his client did not want to be filming events "as an arm of the state".

"There remains a fear that cameramen and journalists might be perceived as collecting on behalf of the police in the future," he said.

After hearing from both sides in the application Judge Grant reserved his decision.

Meanwhile a 22-year-old man has been remanded in custody accused of involvement in petrol bombing during the violence in Belfast.

Declan Collins was arrested in connection with trouble in Ardoyne on 12 July.

The 22-year-old, of St James' Crescent, Belfast, faces charges of riotous assembly and throwing a petrol bomb.

He is also accused of possessing an offensive weapon, namely a spiked pole.