Journalist and photographer Andy Aitchison has received a full apology from the Chief Constable of Kent Police, Alan Pughsley, which includes admissions that Mr Aitchison’s arrest, the search of his property and the imposition of bail conditions and Fixed Penalty Notice were all unlawful.
Mr Aitchison was arrested at his home on 28 January 2021 on suspicion of criminal damage, hours after he had taken and shared photographs of activists demonstrating against conditions at Napier Barracks. Officers searched his family home and seized his mobile phone and memory card from his camera. Mr Aitchison was then held in custody for over five hours before he was released with bail conditions which prohibited him from going near Napier Barracks. A week after the arrest the case against Mr Aitchison was dropped, however a week later Mr Aitchison was issued with a Fixed Penalty Notice. This was only withdrawn after Mr Aitchison’s lawyers threatened legal proceedings.
Lawyers representing Mr Aitchison then sent a pre-action letter of claim for damages and an apology arising from this course of events.
In a headed letter from Kent Police Mr Pughsley said:
Further to the damages received by Mr Aitchison in compensation, I apologise unreservedly to him for his unlawful arrest, false imprisonment and breach of his human rights. I expressly acknowledge there was no culpability on the part of Mr Aitchison who was performing an important function publicising the protest in the public interest. I recognise the fundamental importance of free speech and the independence of journalists; I accept they should not be at risk of arrest and of having their equipment seized when acting lawfully in reporting matters of public interest.
He also said of the Fixed Penalty Notice:
There were no grounds for suspecting breach of public health regulations in force… given that Mr Aitchison was properly engaged in journalistic activity.
Andy Aitchison comments:
I am relieved that this situation is now over and would like to thank the NUJ, in particular their Legal department, who has supported me throughout. I am lucky to have had excellent representation from Bindmans LLP and would also like to thank them for all their support and hard work.
This feels like a very important outcome, that the police have acknowledged that photographers and journalists have a right to work. We must be able to work without fear of arrest and freedom to independently report on events. It is vital to our democracy that we are able to report on all issues, especially if they are politically sensitive.
I hope that Kent Police have learnt from this situation and will work hard to ensure that this does not happen to any other official journalists.
It was a stressful and totally unnecessary experience to go through, both professionally, and personally, not knowing what impact this could have on my work, and how distressing it was for my children to have to witness the whole thing.
I would like to thank everyone who supported me during this challenging time, it has made a significant difference throughout.
The National Union of Journalists comments:
The National Union of Journalists are thankful to Bindmans solicitors in representing our member, Andy in what has been a very difficult and stressful time. We are delighted with the outcome, in particular the acknowledgment by Kent Police that journalists should not be prevented from carrying out their jobs. A victory for journalism and journalists!
Bindmans Solicitor, Rachel Harger, who represented Andy Aitchison, said:
Andy should never have faced criminal charges for reporting on a demonstration in his capacity as a freelance photographer, and I am relieved that the Chief Constable of Kent Police has accepted this and acknowledged the fundamental importance of freedom of speech, and that journalists should not be at risk of arrest or having their equipment seized whilst reporting on events.
Andy Aitchison was represented by Jules Carey and Rachel Harger of Bindmans LLP, along with Jude Bunting of Doughty Street Chambers.