NMA: Time For Government to Think Again On Official Secrets Act Reforms
Proposals to reform the Official Secrets Act which would criminalise swathes of public interest journalism are a “spectre hanging over the industry” which must be abandoned, News Media Association legal, policy and regulatory affairs director Sayra Tekin has said.
In a piece for politics.co.uk, Ms Tekin said the Home Office must act following the Prime Minister’s comments that Government didn’t want to “do anything to interrupt the operation of good journalism” through reform of the official secrets regime.
She said: “In the UK, the importance of trusted journalism during the coronavirus pandemic has been widely acknowledged. More and more people have turned to news media for information to help navigate the crisis and trust in journalism has grown. This, you would assume, would make authorities in democratic societies, such as the UK, rush to support independent journalism.
“Indeed, the pandemic has seen the UK Government pursue a number of important initiatives which have helped news media to continue to serve the public with trusted information even as the pandemic threatened publishers’ businesses. Yet, a spectre hangs over the industry in the form of proposed reforms of the Official Secrets Act which would effectively criminalise much of the public interest journalism you see on the front pages of newspapers and on their websites.
“Under the proposed new laws, the bar for prosecuting both journalists and whistle-blowers who turn to them to expose wrongdoing would be lowered dramatically. This risks opening the floodgates to the prosecution of journalists simply for acting in the public interest.
“If that isn’t enough to make a journalist think twice before pursuing a story, then the beefed up penalties for breaching the Official Secrets Act certainly will. The deterrent to publication created by these changes would be so powerful that stories in the public interest may never see the light of day.
“Of course, from time to time, it is necessary to adjust the law to maintain a sufficient level of security in response to evolving threats. But these changes must not come at the expense of public interest press freedoms which do so much to expose wrongdoing. And, an important point which is often overlooked is that journalists and publishers themselves take great care to report responsibly on matters of national security.
The Prime Minister, a former journalist himself, offered some hope for journalism, Ms Tekin said, by stating that Government wants to “make sure that we don’t do anything to interrupt the operation of good journalism.”
“We urge the Home Office to make good on his commitment and abandon the elements of this reform which would damage independent journalism,” Ms Tekin said. “Instead, the inclusion of a public interest defence within the Official Secrets Act, as recommended by the Law Commission, would strengthen the ability of journalists to hold power to account.
“Journalism has played such an important part in our lives and will continue to do so as we continue to recover from the effects of this awful pandemic. It is imperative that we do not become a place in which the state wields unchecked power to control and intimidate journalists. Instead, we should foster an environment in which the public right to know is strengthened and enhanced by reform, not damaged by it.
“That way, journalism can continue to be a powerful force for good in our society.”