Records of calls by Home Secretary Priti Patel to top police chiefs during an Extinction Rebellion newspaper blockade were 'deleted in IT glitch', a court has heard
Records of calls from the Home Secretary to a chief constable and an assistant chief constable during a blockade of a newspaper printing works deleted in an "IT glitch", a judge was told today.
Priti Patel called Charlie Hall, Hertfordshire’s Chief Constable, when climate change activists from Extinction Rebellion began a demonstration at the Newsprinters site, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, in September last year.
Two of the protestors, Charlotte Kirin, 52, and Hazel Stenson, 57, are from Bury St Edmunds.
They were amongst 50 demonstrators who stopped three and a million copies of national newspapers, including the Telegraph, Mail, Sun and the Times leaving the plant, which is just off the A10 near Broxbourne in Herts.
After the police removed the demonstrators the next morning, the Gold Commander Assistant Chief Constable Matt Nicholls received a text from the Home Secretary thanking him for the force’s work, St Albans magistrates’ court heard today.
Raj Chada, who is representing some of the six climate change protestors on trial, told District Judge Sally Fudge that “Two phones of two very senior officers have had their messages deleted.”
He said he may argue that, as a result, the defendants cannot receive a fair trial.
Mr Chada said: “The defence is concerned about what matters were taken into account in the decision to remove the demonstrators, the extent of political interference and what contact was made.”
He said the defence had received a report that reviewed the police actions on September 4 and 5 last year.
Mr Chada said: “The brief findings of the review of the operation states that the volume of contact from the Home Office was understandable and needs to be carefully considered in the future.
The Chief Constable was heavily involved in receiving calls from the Home Secretary.
The next morning the Home Secretary asked why it had taken so long to be resolved.
“There had been contact - the defence say significant contact and significant pressure.
“The court is dealing with the effect of contact from the Home Secretary on that operation. We have its conclusions, but not what it based its conclusions on.
“We are concerned about the extent of contact - does that amount to abuse of process?”
He said the documentation also referred to the Home Secretary being alerted by several contacts in the media to the protest.
Mr Chada went on to say that the Chief Constable had received a call from the Home Secretary at 11.40pm on the night of September 4 alerting him to the importance of newspaper supply. He said that the report revealed he’d updated her in the “hours of darkness.”
But the judge was told Mr Hall’s phone had been updated since the night and all messages and records have been deleted.
Assistant Chief Constable Matt Nicholls’ text messages had been deleted in an “IT glitch”.
Earlier the court heard the blockade cost the newspaper printers £1 million.
Workers were unable to leave in their cars at the end of the shifts and had to go home in taxis.
Six people are on trial in the second case brought to court. They are accused of wilfully blocking the highway.
The accused are: Laura Frandsen, 31, of Waller Road, London; Caspar Hughes, 49, of Commercial Road, Exeter; Amir Jones, 40, Fletcher Street, London; Charlotte Kirin, 52, Peckham Street, Bury St Edmunds; Hazel Stenson, 57, Summer Road, Bury St Edmunds and Elise Yarde, 33, Gainsford Road, London.
At the end of the first trial, six members of Extinction Rebellion were convicted of wilfully blocking the highway and were fined and given conditional discharges.
Opening the case prosecutor Nigel Ogborne said Extinction Rebellion were protesting about News International’s attitude to climate change.
He said the six defendants on trial were in, on and under two hired Citroen vans which blocked the road.
Inspector Matthew Barton told the court: “There were a large number of protestors blocking the main access road off the A10.
There were two vans blocking the main roadway and two purpose-built bamboo structures that had protestors at height on each.
“I gave options to them to continue to protest lawfully by moving from the road to a nearby grass bank. They refused to leave the road.”
Amir Jones, who represents himself, put it to Inspector Barton that if the protest had moved to the side of the road it would not have achieved the national and broadcast media coverage it did.
The inspector replied: ”It is hard for me to understand reporting mechanism of media. I was trying to strike a balance in protecting right of assembly and free speech and the rights of the employees and the public on a wider scale. To balance that and ensure safety, the only option was to offer a peaceful protest on the side of the road.”
District Judge Sally Fudge refused a defence request to disclose screen shots of text messages between the Home Secretary and Hertfordshire’s Chief Constable during the Extinction Rebellion blockage of the Newsprinters works.
She said: “I have considered all the material. There are 18 separate items. I have reached the conclusion that there is no material in this bundle that undermines the prosecution case or assists the defence.”
The case was adjourned until Monday morning when the judge will make a ruling on whether material in a second bundle of documents can be disclosed to the defence.
Hertfordshire’s Assistant Chief Constable Owen Weatherill is also due to give evidence on Monday.