M25 journalist arrests: the four points when officers got it wrong – a policing expert explains
The arrest of LBC radio reporter Charlotte Lynch on November 8, while covering a story about environmental protests is contributing to a debate about declining trust and confidence in the police.
A review by Cambridgeshire Police has now stated the arrest was “not justified”.
Lynch was covering a Just Stop Oil protest from a road bridge above the M25 motorway, near London when she was approached by police officers from Hertfordshire Constabulary.
She identified herself as a journalist, showing them her press card which had a hotline number for verification purposes, endorsed by the National Police Chiefs Council. Despite making it clear she was there doing her job, she was arrested, handcuffed, driven to a police custody suite and her detention was authorised by a custody sergeant. Her possessions were taken from her and her fingerprints and DNA were taken. Lynch says she was in a police cell for five hours before being released with no further action being taken.
After UK prime minister Rishi Sunak spoke about his concerns about the erosion of press freedom over this case, a review was ordered. Cambridgeshire Police have now released the review’s conclusion stating that the M25 arrests of Lynch and other journalists were not justified and that there will be changes in the training of officers and how protests are policed.
According to the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights Dunja Mijatović: “Making the facts known to the public is often the first, essential step to start redressing human rights violations and hold governments accountable.”
My experience of 30 years in policing tells me that there should have been four points when Lynch’s arrest should have been questioned, prevented or stopped.
Lynch, who says she was not blocking the public pathway and was covering a protest that had been publicly announced, was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.
Most relevant to Lynch’s case are the two conditions that need to apply to make an arrest lawful, which are: the arresting officer must have reasonable grounds to suspect that the person is committing an offence and that their arrest is necessary.
The journalist’s presence near to the protest could justify the first condition, had it not been for the fact that she was doing her job as a member of the press.
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However, even more crucially, the other condition requires that there is no other less intrusive means to achieve the objectives of the arrest, which in this case was to investigate the offence. To fail in either of these criteria risks an unjustified breach of Lynch’s right to security and liberty protected by the Human Rights Act’s Article 5.
Two days after Lynch’s arrest, the chief constable of Hertfordshire Constabulary, Charlie Hall, acknowledged that “in retrospect an arrest would not have been necessary”. He also “recognised the concerns over freedom of the press”.
While it is reassuring that Hall recognises and publicly acknowledges the error in this case, the damage had already been done.
There were four points when officers should have questioned whether Lynch needed to be arrested:
The arresting officer should have done everything possible to avoid the need for arrest. A phone call to the number listed on the back of the journalist’s press card would have confirmed her as a member of the media. Each officer has a duty to exercise their powers with discretion, justifying their reasons and being personally accountable under the law, according to the codes of practice and the police code of ethics.
A colleague on the other end of the radio operating command-and-control duties should have been in touch with the arresting officer. He or she could have also checked that Lynch was a member of the media (she says she made this clear) and could have also made the verification checks.
Even if arresting officers had not dealt with a member of the press before, their supervisor should have at least been aware that this is an occupation which embodies freedom of speech. An arrest should not interfere with a necessary and central function of a liberal democracy – a free press.
The custody sergeant would have been notified of the incoming arrest and in the hour it took the officers to drive Lynch to Stevenage police station should have been considering whether there was a need to detain her.
Neil Basu, who previously served as assistant commissioner for specialist operations in the Metropolitan Police, argues that “political and societal pressure” can result in an over-reaction in the use of “hard police” tactics.
The pressure on police officers to act swiftly to limit the disruption caused by protests creates circumstances where wrong decisions are being made.
The power to constrain the liberty of a fellow citizen needs to be used wisely and carefully. Officers can feel under pressure from politicians and commentators to make arrests when they are not needed. But doing so could risk losing public trust.