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Last Updated: Monday, 21 June, 2004, 15:26 GMT 16:26 UK
Fathers 4 Justice
A policeman and protester during the march
If you're a pressure group and measure success purely in terms of column inches achieved then Fathers 4 Justice must be feeling pretty smug.

After all, their flour bombing of Tony Blair in the Commons certainly got them publicity - yards and yards of it. But it led some to wonder out loud, if that was their idea of mature protest, was it any wonder the courts took a dim view of their contact rights - the main cause of their unhappiness. Others though said it merely reflected desperation at the state of family law.

Fathers 4 Justice held a rally in London - ahead of Fathers Day. So what drives this group's strategy? Richard Watson gained access to the heart of their operations in the run-up to the march.

MATT O'CONNOR:
(Fathers for Justice)

This campaign will change. We will keep chopping and changing strategy. We will challenge the police and the public in the coming months.

RICHARD WATSON:
In the quiet reaches of Suffolk countryside lies the nerve centre for perhaps the fastest growing campaign in Britain, Fathers for Justice. Earlier this week tucked away in the grounds of a 13th century manner, the movement's founder, Matt O'Connor is finalising plans.

MATT O'CONNOR:
It's the most stressful time. Just trying to cope. I think some of the guys are coming up this afternoon. Then we've got a full house tomorrow. When it gets to the point where that is likely to be the case, can you ring and say, "if I don't get in this the next hour I'll put a few fireworks up people's back sides". Thanks for calling me. Matt speaking...

WATSON:
Fathers for Justice is run by Matt and one assistant out of this room. They can barely cope with the increased demand for information, especially after activists flour bombed Tony Blair last month, which created a security scare in Parliament.

O'CONNOR:
The Labour Party was forged in the fires of civil disobedience. It amazes me that the party has forgotten their roots.

WATSON:
No regrets about that?

O'CONNOR:
Categorically not. Fathers for Justice always claim and account for our actions. There's always a bit of humour in it. Condom for obvious reasons, self- raising flour, again for obvious reasons. It got them off their feet any way.

WATSON:
This stuff is against the law though.

O'CONNOR:
That is the nature of this organisation. We do explore the outer extremities of the law. We break the law deliberately and are prepared to be held for account for that. Whether or not we're right, we'll let history be our judge.

WATSON:
Matt O'Connor who launched the group 18 months after a messy divorce drove 50,000 miles last year, mainly he said, to avoid being monitored by the police. Direct action is the key to the group's fast growing support, but can he be sure some supporters won't go too far? Last weekend activists claiming to be from Fathers for Justice sabotaged a television transmitter in Shropshire. It has nothing to do with us. In fact I was annoyed with that; my children were with me at the time. I wanted some peaceful time with my children. I switched my phone off on Sunday morning because of the number of calls I was getting about this transmitter incident. Let's face it, hopefully we've got a degree of savvy about us. Who wants to switch off a transmitter during Euro 2004 and hack off the people we're trying to recruit?

WATSON:
You could get mavericks out there, you do some extreme things.

O'CONNOR:
Last week we warned Scotland Yard about concerns that we'd had about a possible splinter group. There is very little we can do about that apart from keeping the vast majority of people in this organisation on board and disciplined. Our coordinators sign up to a national agreement, which I will show you. We have national coordinator's meetings. We run it like a military campaign.

Fantastic. That's really good.

WATSON:
The campaign's focus is beginning to shift from men in tights to more serious discussion. Today is a big day, the first copies of Father for Justice's so-called "Blueprint" for the complete overhaul of the family law courts is ready. The group says hearings are secretive, costly and take too long. Some women are maliciously blocking contact by creating allegations of abuse. Some women refuse to comply and nothing is done to enforce the contact orders.

O'CONNOR:
How do we build a fair and just in family law not just for now, but for the next 25 years? This is about starting from scratch. It's very radical. I know it's difficult because Government moves slowly. But I think that's what's needed, radical reform. That's what this document says. It's a case for urgent, radical reform.

WATSON:
Are you saying then that the majority of men who aren't getting the contact with their kids, are being unjustly denied that contact? You're absolutely clear about that. Some people would argue that in many cases they are feckless, they're somehow irresponsible.

O'CONNOR:
It's not just Fathers for Justice saying it. It's the judges, the solicitors and the politicians increasingly. People are beginning to recognise that our family justice system is failing fathers, mothers and children. It needs to go and it needs to go now.

WATSON:
Back at the office, they're fine tuning the campaign. Fathers for Justice says it's choosing music for superhero dads ready for the march in London. But are all the dads who've been denied contact really superheroes or are some a threat to women and children?

Women's groups are saying in the vast majority of cases when women are denying contact there's a good reason for it, that's because men are dangerous.

O'CONNOR:
That's not borne out in any way, shape or form. I've just cited two high profile judgments. This is about children and about good, loving parents.

WATSON:
What is your view, when there is proven evidence of domestic violence in the family perpetrated by the man, for example, for argument sake, do you think contact should be automatically sanctioned by the court, should it be supervised?

O'CONNOR:
I'm not here to take about domestic violence, I'm here to talk about family law. Let's make a very clear differentiation. If you want to talk about domestic violence then do a programme about that. But if the child's at risk from any parent, then the child protection authorities need to step in.

WATSON:
At the march in London today, we spoke to several men who told us they'd be denied contact after unsubstantiated allegations of abuse or violence with made. We're legally prevented from reporting these in detail. Campaigners here say much can be done to improve the family court system. Allegations of abuse should be dealt with swiftly. There should be a presumption of equal parenting duties and contact time. Currently 22 members of Fathers for Justice are facing prosecution for public order offences. We were told if all the key people were arrested the group would roll out plan zero, widespread civil disobedience.

O'CONNOR:
Our democracy, our Parliamentarians have failed not just fathers, not just mothers, they've failed our children. They've known about this for years. I hold this democracy in contempt.

WATSON:
They claim their arguments are slowly gaining ground with solicitors, judges and politicians. They point out some women, often new partners, support their views. The group maintains that breaking the law has caused their strategy, a raise in the profile of child contact and family law.


This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.



WATCH AND LISTEN
Newsnight's Richard Watson
was given access to Fathers 4 Justice's nerve centre as they planned for the demonstration.



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