Opinion and Editorial

Frightening, isn’t it?

Phillip Knightley
Filed on March 9, 2007

BRITAINíS reputation as a land of free speech is under threat. Laws that were intended to curb the excesses of the members of the tabloid Press, especially photographers, have been twisted by greedy lawyers to suppress both free speech and dissent.

A series of well-publicised cases of "stalking" and of photographers following celebrities everywhere they went, led to the rushed introduction in 1997 of the Protection from Harassment Act.

It was thought that there would be about 200 cases a year but instead by 2002 there were more than 6,000. What had happened was that lawyers saw that there were ways of using the law that the government has not intended. For example, some lawyers have used it in workplace bullying claims or even to stop alleged anxiety or distress caused by neighbours or even relatives. But, worryingly for free speech, the law has also been used as a replacement for libel claims, particularly where the person making the claim is not so much interested in libel damages óincreasingly hard to obtain óbut more in suppressing what the person or publication wants to say about them.

Getting a quick harassment order by claiming that what a newspaper is publishing is causing the subject of the articles "alarm and/or distress" tends to shut up the offending publication. The cost of legal proceedings to have the harassment order lifted could then deter the publication from going ahead. A top union official used the harassment route to limit personal attacks on him by the London Evening Standard. A woman brought a claim against The Sun for publishing articles about her, which reported that three police officers had been demoted as a result of a complaint she had made about their alleged racist remarks.

But the most alarming use of the harassment law has been by a big energy company, RWE npower which runs a power station at Didcot in Oxfordshire. The company plans to empty Thrupp Lake, a local swimming, fishing and picnic spot, then line it with clay. It will then dump 60,000 tonnes of "fly ash", a by-product of burning coal that contains lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium. It then plans to wait for several years until the ash solidifies before attempting "remediation". As might be expected, the local residents have been up in arms against the plan and have been marching, demonstrating and photographing the early stages of the power companyís work óthe cutting down of trees and the destruction of wildlife habitats.

The company hired security guards to keep the protesters at bay. The guards are an intimidating bunch, some of whom wear black face masks. But the companyís lawyers also went to the courts and used the harassment law to obtain injunctions stopping the protesters from harassing the guards. It said that demonstrating against them, photographing them and arguing with them was causing them "alarm and distress". Now the protesters can no longer photograph the guards, "loiter within five yards" of them "whether on foot or in vehicles" or speak threateningly to them.

All this sounds so ludicrous that you may wonder why the protesters have just ignored it. The answer is that if someone did, then he or she can be deemed to have broken the injunction, a criminal offence carrying a penalty of up to five yearsí imprisonment. Thus a law intended to prevent people from being intimidated has had the opposite and unexpected result of intimidating people itself. Worse, it is in danger of suppressing all protest, no matter how legitimate and justified.

One of the leading company of lawyers in the harassment injunction scene advertises itself as "the market leader in obtaining ground-breaking injunctions on behalf of individuals and corporations who have been the subject of harassment by direct action protest groups." And how is this for the clincher? The injunction applies not only to the local protesters, but to anyone who has knowledge of it. So it is quite likely that if I were to travel up to Thrupp Lake, seek out one of the security guards and take him to task for endangering Britainís freedom of expression, I could risk five years behind bars. Frightening, isnít it?

Phillip Knightley is a veteran British journalist based in London

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