“Journalists have a right to inform the public and the public have a right to know. The Bill is therefore potentially very damaging for the freedom of the press. We rely on journalists to report on corruption of all kinds, so we must amend the Bill.”Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, Green Party
Why is it important?
Currently at Report Stage in the House of Lords, peers are scrutinising the provisions of the National Security Bill, including the ways in which new offences relating to foreign power activity and the safety or interests of the UK might impact on the rights guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), namely the right to freedom of expression.
The NMA is concerned to ensure that recommendations for law reform to protect national security do not undermine press freedom by potentially capturing legitimate public interest journalism within its provisions. The importance of a free and independent press to a democratic society cannot be overstated, facilitating government accountability and the public’s right to know.
Any uncertainty over the nature and scope of the espionage offences will have a chilling effect, discouraging sources (including whistle-blowers) from coming forward and engendering a risk-averse environment in media organisations.
“Modern public interest journalism in a digitally connected world inevitably straddles national boundaries. It involves a combination of civil society and media organisations working together to report on leaked documents from the public and private sectors, the publication of which is genuinely in the public interest. It often relies on whistleblowers, who expose themselves to serious risk.”Lord Black of Brentwood, Conservative
The NMA is particularly concerned by the Bill’s implications for journalists working for another government’s state broadcaster – including that of a friendly state – who report on a leak of protected information which is subsequently held to be prejudicial to the UK’s interests.
The journalist would commit an offence under the bill if they knew or ought to have known that the report would prejudice the UK’s safety or interests and could face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
It is arguable, for example, that the Cambridge Analytica story which revealed election interference with Brexit and the US election could have been caught in scope.
Even the possibility that such conduct could be captured creates a high-risk environment for journalists and their sources, which can lead to the dropping of stories and the chilling of speech and accountability.