[WATCH] BBC presenter Chris Packham cleared of assault, trespass charges

BBC Springwatch presenter Chris Packham acquitted of assault and trespass after magistrates finds that the prosecution had not presented enough evidence to substantiate the charges

BBC presenter Chris Packham cleared of assault, trespass charges
BBC presenter Chris Packham cleared of assault, trespass charges
Chris Packham in 2014, after being detained by the ALE police on a report by the FKNK. Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday
Chris Packham in 2014, after being detained by the ALE police on a report by the FKNK. Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday

BBC Springwatch presenter Chris Packham was Thursday morning acquitted of having assaulted the owners of a Gozo property and trespassing on the same property, after Magistrate Joseph Mifsud found that the prosecution had not presented enough evidence to substantiate the charges.

In his ruling, Mifsud reiterated that journalists play a crucial report in scrutinising public life in a democracy, as long as they follow the law themselves and do not infringe on the rights of individuals. 

The British naturalist and broadcaster was charged with assault and trespass after confronting poachers he believed had illegally trapped wild birds, on Tuesday.

Packham, who was making an independent film about Malta’s spring hunt, had called the police after discovering a large cage of protected wild species, including goldfinch, moorhen, starlings and turtle doves. It is illegal to keep some of these birds in captivity.

Packham said in his testimony that while he and his crew were filming an aviary on private property on Tuesday, four men stopped near them and told them to leave. 

He told Magistrate Joseph Mifsud that a man had jostled him around while he himself kept his hands down by his side and said nothing. 

Packham said that a policeman had also pushed him three times although he did confirm that he and his crew were on public land. 

He discounted the testimony of Charlton Attard, and said it was in fact Attard’s father who accosted him, not the son. 

Charlton Paul Attard, of Xewkija, said that on 18 April around 2pm he learnt that there were some people taking photographs on his property and found three men, one of whom – Packham – started pushing him with his chest against the wall. 

He told the magistrate that the accused never spoke to him or threatened him. 

Attard confirmed that policemen had separated him and Packham.

On cross-examination, Attard said that the incident actually happened on a road bordering his property. ”This was the second time that day these people came there because they were there earlier to film my aviary,” he said. He denied that he had moved any birds out of the aviary before the second incident where the police were involved. 

Ruth Peacey, who was filming Packham, testified that she continued filming from waist level after the men got out of two cars and ordered them to stop filming. 

She presented as evidence a DVD containing her footage and others from a mobile phone and another camera.

Nick Barbara, of BirdLife Malta, who was accompanying Packham and his crew on the day of the incident, said that he was surprised at how the police acted and that he had expected them to act against the men who threatened and manhandled Packham. 

According to Packham, he and his producer Ruth Peacey and soundman Garry Moore were filming an interview on a public road when two men jumped out of a vehicle and “started screaming and shouting and pushing”.

The police were present and “immediately took the side of the aggressors and manhandled Chris and other members of the team off the site”.

After being detained for more than three hours at a police station, Packham was charged. His production team are believed to have camera footage that may exonerate him. 

During a Facebook Live Q&A session on Wednesday evening, broadcasting from the Maltese city of Mdina, Packham went into more detail about the incident that lead to the charges.

“[The man] had some birds in a cage … but by the time the police turned up, they’d all mysteriously vanished. Weird that. And weird that he’d given a list of these birds to police earlier in the day but he wasn’t arrested, and he’s not going to court, I am,” he said, adding that he was due in court at 9am.

Packham also emphasised that his condemnation of spring hunting didn’t amount to persecution of the Maltese. “We’ve come out here not as people from the UK wagging their finger at the Maltese, not even as Europeans – seeing as we’re still part of the EU – but just as people who are concerned about the birds,” he said.

FKNK reaction

In a statement issued on Wednesday the Federation of Hunters, Trappers and Conservationists (FKNK) said that Packham, and other ‘tourists’ like him were guilty of “neo-colonialist behaviour”.

The lobby also criticised BirdLife Malta for inviting him to Malta. “The arrogance, the provocation and contempt towards the authorities and the legal systems are features Packham is well known, not just on Malta,” it said.

Killing birds during the spring breeding season is forbidden under the European Union’s Birds’ Directive, but Malta has an opt-out to enable its 10,000 hunters to continue their traditional shoot of migrating birds.

Birds such as the turtle dove – last year added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s “red list” of species most at risk of extinction – are illegally hunted. However, this year 15 corpses of protected wild species, including marsh harrier and hoopoe, have also been handed to BirdLife Malta.

The NGOs has filmed a hunter illegally shooting a rare stone curlew. Another conservationists NGO, the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS), caught two people illegally shooting turtle doves after the end of the spring hunt.

Packham said he had also found golden plover held in tiny cages in the hot sun, and these crimes were “obviously the tip of the iceberg”.

“It’s just bizarre what’s going on,” Packham said. “What we experienced yesterday BirdLife Malta and CABS experience all the time. It makes it so difficult to get the law upheld when the local police are very uncooperative because they will be friends of or family of or drinking in the same bar as the people we are trying to incriminate.”

Malta narrowly voted to continue the tradition of spring hunting in a 2015 referendum, and Packham said the government was not doing enough to stop illegal hunting around the still-legal spring shoot.

“The amount of interest and commitment that the government has put into policing these crimes has diminished because there’s an election on the horizon [in Malta] and the government doesn’t want to upset 10,000 hunters and their families,” Packham said.

He called on the EU to take action against Malta. “What’s going on contravenes the European birds directive,” he said. “We want Malta to comply with the birds directive like every other country does.”

The Maltese police said they could not comment on an individual case.

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