Overseas Production Orders Bill: Government Moves To Address Press Freedom Concerns

The Government has moved to address press freedom concerns raised by the News Media Association and campaigners by introducing prior notification requirements as MPs scrutinise the new regime for overseas production orders in the UK.  

In a debate yesterday, Security Minister Ben Wallace said that he had “listened to suggestions” on issues such as the protection and notification of journalists and introduced protections into the Crime (Overseas Production Orders) Bill.

Amendments introducing a requirement for a journalist or news organisation to be notified and heard at the time of the application for a production order for journalistic data – as called for by the NMA – were introduced to the Bill yesterday. The Governemnt also accepted the NMA’s call for the police to have to show the data applied for is “relevant evidence”.

Speaking in the debate, Nick Thomas-Symonds, Shadow Minister for Security, said: “In general terms, I am pleased with the Government’s direction of travel on these issues, but there are still some real causes of concern. I am pleased with the movement on Government amendments 19 and 20, which were mentioned earlier.”

“The notification requirement now extends to all journalistic data. There was a concern that, if we were distinguishing between confidential data and non-confidential data, some would not be covered. This move is therefore to be welcomed, as is the genuine notification requirement that specifically includes the journalist, which I believe is included in Government amendment 20.”

The key amendments were 19 and 20, tabled by Huw Merriman MP, which strengthens the requirement to notify journalists and extends it to applications for all journalistic data, not just confidential sources. 

MPs also raised concerns about the UK entering into reciprocal arrangements with countries that have few or no safeguards for press freedom and the protection of sources – creating a “backdoor” for security forces to obtain journalistic data. 

Amendment 18 would have required the Government to only allow overseas authorities to apply for UK held data where there are equivalent protections for freedom of expression and the protection of sources.

Gavin Newlands MP, SNP, said: “We believe that the Bill does not provide adequate protection of confidential journalistic material. This could seriously threaten journalistic inquiry and prevent a free press from doing its job, and the implications for our democracy are worrying.

“We are not alone in having those concerns; the BBC and many others have raised deep concerns about this part of the Bill. Amendment 18 is essential because it ensures that any protections afforded to our journalists in this Bill are not simply domestic but that other states that the Government enter into an agreement with must mirror the UK’s press safeguards.”

Mr Thomas-Symonds added: “Amendment 18 would be totally in line with what the Foreign Secretary said; it would really push our position as a beacon in the world of press freedom, saying that we would not be able to countenance a treaty with a country that did not have those similar levels of press freedoms, nor would we wish to have a situation where another country without the same level of press freedom as us somehow has this back door to access our data.”

The Minister said aim of amendment 18 was “laudable” but added that the Bill was “not the right place for the proposals” adding that “no rational Government of the day would do a deal with a country that lacked regard for the rule of law or that failed to maintain press freedom.” Future treaties made under the Bill would contain such safeguards, he added. 

The NMA has lobbied extensively on this Bill and its sister Bill, the Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill, winning stronger protections for journalists.