Time for government to think again on Official Secrets Act reforms

Journalists being hauled off to prison simply for daring to ask difficult questions of authority is an infringement of civil liberties which we normally associate with overseas regimes. A look at the lower end of Reporters Without Borders’ highly instructive World Press Freedom Index reveals all too graphically the horrors that reporters face in some parts of the world.

Ruthless authorities will stop at nothing to avoid being held to account by those who would shine a light on their activities on behalf of the public. Their methods are varied but usually include intimidation, imprisonment, and even the killing of journalists. Often the excuse of state security is used as a cover for the systematic targeting of journalists. The real aim is, of course, reputation management, but in the most brutal and unyielding terms.

Concerns have also been raised about some regimes using the coronavirus pandemic to crack down on the free media. This is simply another attempt to control the flow of information in a different guise.  The real loser in all of this is, of course, the public, who are denied access to trustworthy information which they can use to make informed decisions about their lives.

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, has offered some hope for journalism.  Talking about Official Secrets Act reform, he said 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.

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.