The national police chief for the protests has defended the “absolutely appropriate” response to Just Stop Oil and said officers are “working in a liberal democracy” after Suella Braverman called for tougher action.
Speaking at a conference in London, the Home Secretary told police chiefs it was their ‘duty to take a firmer line to safeguard public order’ and accused them of an “institutional reluctance” to use their powers against protesters.
Calling Just Stop Oil ‘extremists’, Ms Braverman added: ‘I urge you all to perform your public duties in policing the protests. The law-abiding patriotic majority is on your side.
But Chief Constable Chris Noble, head of protests for the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), defended the approach taken during days of disruptive action targeting M25.
He told reporters that officers were taking proactive action when they could, responding quickly and making many arrests resulting in charges.
“To me, that’s a very appropriate response for what we’re dealing with,” Noble added.
“We are open to feedback, we haven’t always struck the right balance in the past, but from my perspective we operate within the law and we have a responsibility to ensure that what we do is proportionate.”
Asked by The Independent if the police response to Just Stop Oil would change following the Home Secretary’s appeal, the senior officer replied: ‘There is a fair challenge as to how effectively we deal with these protests particular, but we operate within the law, we operate in a liberal democracy, and the response to some of the challenges we face is not a police response.
“We are part of it but we are not going to stop to get out of the environmental protest.”
Several people have been arrested and charged over the protests this week, while three journalists detained while covering the actions of Just Stop Oil have been released without action.
Following outrage over the arrests, Hertfordshire’s elected police and crime commissioner admitted police “got it wrong”, but later accused journalists of “facilitating the protests”.
In a panel discussion on the protests at the NPCC’s annual summit, David Lloyd said: “The editorial decisions many organizations are making on Just Stop Oil reporting means more protests are happening…you have to ask. a question as a journalist with a camera, do you host, do you make the news or do you report the news? »
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He denied calling for censorship but suggested that the media consider whether they are “serving the country better by adding fuel to the fire”.
Several media freedom and human rights groups have sounded the alarm over Mr Lloyd’s comments, with Liberty calling suggestions that the media change their coverage a “dangerous overreach”.
OpenDemocracy said it was the job of journalists to report the facts, “not to censor events at the whim of the authorities”, while Index on Censorship added: “A cornerstone of media freedom is to allow newsrooms to decide what they want to prioritize”.
Senior police officials present at the NPCC conference did not support Mr Lloyd’s comments about media coverage of Just Stop Oil.
Mr Noble called freedom of the press ‘fundamental’ and said: ‘In the vast majority of cases there should be no need to intervene with journalists at a protest.’
Speaking at the same debate, Police Minister Chris Philp said: “Journalists who go about their lawful business reporting the news as they see fit obviously should not be arrested.”
Mr Noble called Just Stop Oil’s tactic of seeing activists tethering to motorway gantries as ‘unreasonable and criminal’ and accused them of putting lives at risk.
But he said police had a legal duty to weigh the rights of protesters against the rights of the general public when taking any action.
The Home Secretary said she wanted new guidance for police to end a ‘restrictive interpretation of the law’ so they use a controversial set of improved protest laws more frequently.
One of the new statutory offenses introduced earlier this year, public nuisance, has been used against Just Stop Oil activists in recent days, but previously the pre-existing traffic obstruction offense was commonly used.
Parliament is now considering a new package of protest laws in the Public Order Bill, which brings back measures rejected by the House of Lords for being too “draconian”.
They include the power to ban individuals from protesting, to criminalize “lockdown” and to stop and search people for any equipment that might be used for this purpose.
Mr Noble said he could see the value of the change, but police chiefs had asked the government for “clarity” about what parts of the proposed law mean.
“It’s not as simple as making new legislation and there’s no more challenge there, that’s not the reality,” he warned.
The police minister told the conference that the new law would bring “reasonable and proportionate measures, which will help the police to protect the public from unreasonable disturbance”.