Am I on the domestic extremist database?
On 4 March the UK Supreme Court ruled that police surveillance of John Catt, a law-abiding 90-year-old peace campaigner, was legal, and that a detailed record of his movements would remain in the national domestic extremist database. ‘The composition, organisation and leadership of protest groups,’ Lord Sumption said, ‘is a matter of proper interest to the police even if some of the individuals are not themselves involved in any criminality.’ Using the data protection act, Catt obtained a copy of his police file in 2010. At one protest, it recorded, he ‘sat on a folding chair... and appeared to be sketching’. At another, ‘he was using his drawing pad to sketch a picture of the protest and police presence.’ Another entry noted he was clean-shaven. The Network for Police Monitoring said that the ruling ‘allows the police extraordinary discretion to gather personal information of individuals for purposes that are never fully defined’.
Late last year, six journalists working with the NUJ found out the Metropolitan Police had been monitoring and recording their professional and personal lives. The group submitted subject access requests, demanding to see all the information the Met held on them. After some ‘obstructive replies’, they got what they were looking for. Jason Parkinson, a freelance filmmaker, said that his file went back to 2005 and contained 141 separate surveillance logs, detailing his movements during protests, the clothes he wore, that he was ‘XLW’ (extreme left wing), his addresses and police records for previous partners. Jules Mattsson, a Times journalist, said that records of his appearance, childhood and a family member’s medical history had been logged on the domestic extremism database.
Last summer, on a job for Vice magazine, I visited an anti-fracking camp near Blackpool and went with activists when they briefly occupied the Northwest Lancashire Chamber of Commerce.
A couple of months later I got a letter from Lancashire Police saying that I was being investigated in relation to the occupation. They wanted me to go to Lancashire for an interview under caution. The NUJ organised legal advice and after a lot of emails back and forth – in one I was told to submit my fingerprints to a local police station – Lancashire Police dropped the investigation. ‘We only had some 6 months to put the matter before the Courts if appropriate,’ they said. ‘We will no longer be in a position to interview your client in respect of this offence.’
They were going to keep my details, however: ‘Please advised [sic] that an intelligence report will be submitted regarding your clients [sic] suspected involvement in the incident.’ My solicitor is trying to find out exactly what this means, but I think it’s not unlikely my details will be, or already have been, added to the domestic extremist database, joining at least 9000 other people, many of whom have no criminal records. I haven’t been charged with any criminal offence and was at the protests as a journalist.
At least one other journalist covering the Blackpool anti-fracking protests has also been investigated by the police. Netpol reported that a filmmaker called Nina was visited at her home by Special Branch officers working for the Counter Terrorism and Domestic Extremist Unit. The officers questioned her over a documentary film she’d made about the anti-fracking camp. ‘What angers me the most,’ she told Netpol, ‘is that my son, who was only 15 at the time I was filming but wants to become a filmmaker and assists me whenever he can, is now also the subject of a counter terrorism and domestic extremism investigation.’