Joint Committee on Human Rights Calls For Public Interest Defence In National Security Bill

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has agreed with the News Media Association that provisions in the National Security Bill may have a chilling effect on legitimate journalistic activities, adding that the NMA had “made a clear case for a public interest defence” to be included in the new regime.

In its report on the National Security Bill, the JCHR welcomes the Bill’s provisions as “overall a positive step forward” but warned that there are “risks within some of the provisions that offences are drawn too widely and could criminalise behaviour that does not constitute a threat to national security.” 

The Committee concludes that some of the offences “would interfere unnecessarily and disproportionately with rights to freedom of expression and association, and the right to protest and may have a disproportionate impact on certain communities, particularly if new police powers are not exercised with restraint.”  

The Committee said: “More thought must be given to how the legislation will affect whistle-blowers, protesters and journalists who are engaged in activities which are part of a healthy functioning democratic system.”

The NMA raised concerns over powers of entry, search and seizure without judicial authorisation cautioning that this was “a retrograde step which could  stifle investigative journalism by reduces protections for journalistic material in police searches and putting sources at risk.

The JCHR says that the NMA “made a clear case for a public interest defence.”  The NMA had contended that “such a defence enhances public accountability; it enables matters of public interest to be scrutinised and debated and allows malpractice to be exposed and addressed.

“The defence must be available to all. Neither whistle-blower nor journalist should be at risk of prosecution for revealing wrongdoing or other matters of public interest.”  

The final sitting of the National Security Bill Committee took place on Tuesday.  Ahead of this, NMA chief executive Owen Meredith and Sayra Tekin, NMA director of legal, met with Kevan Jones MP to discuss his amendment aimed at introducing a public interest defence into the Bill.   

The clause had cross-party support throughout the House, including on the government benches.  In the debate Tom Tugendhat MP, Minister of State for Security, said that he “appreciated the right hon. Gentleman’s points” and undertook to accompany Mr Jones to a meeting with senior officials – which would happen “imminently” – so that he could “hear the explanations of others and not just Ministerial colleagues.” 

On this basis the clause was withdrawn, with Mr Jones saying that the issue was “not going to go away”. The National Security Bill now enters its Report Stage in the House of Commons.