According to the proposed overhaul of the Official Secrets Act, a piece of legislation designed to counter state threats, investigative journalists and whistleblowers could be treated the same way as spies. It means they would face several years of jail time for revealing sensitive information, even if it is in the public interest.
Individual journalists and media organisations have shared their concerns around the proposed changes and highlighted the harsh implications the new bill could have for investigative journalism in the future.
Journalism.co.uk spoke to James Slack, deputy editor-in-chief at The Sun about how the new legislation could impact journalists' ability to hold the government to account. Slack, who joined the newspaper earlier this year after working as the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson, is critical of the new proposal. The interview is lightly edited for clarity.
Are your investigative journalists worried about the proposed overhaul of the UK's secrecy laws?
Every journalist I have spoken with at The Sun and elsewhere is appalled that the government is even considering doing something so draconian, and which could have such a profoundly damaging impact on the public's right to know.
How would this secrecy act impact stories like exposing Matt Hancock for breaking the covid rules with his aid?
Look at what ministers are proposing. The lack of public interest defence would have a chilling effect on the media's ability to report wrongdoing, hypocrisy, and criminal negligence. It would also make it far less likely that whistleblowers would be prepared to come forward in the first place.
The Home Office claims that leaking official documents to journalists is comparable to espionage. How do you see that?
It is preposterous to suggest there is any similarity between the activities of spies working for hostile states and the activities of journalists seeking to hold the government to account and ensure that wrongdoing is not covered up.
When the Home Office says that unauthorised disclosure of official data that could be in the public interest should not be possible, how can journalists and whistleblowers deal with that?
The Law Commission itself proposed the inclusion of public interest defence for journalists but the Home Office chose to ignore this recommendation. It cherry-picked what it liked and discounted what it did not.
The Prime Minister said that he does not "for one minute" want to handicap the ability of a free press to expose the hypocrisy of Matt Hancock and other scandals. In which case he needs to step in and insist that, if whistleblowers and journalists can prove that the disclosure of confidential information was carried out in the public interest, a prosecution would fail.
How difficult is it to get information out of the government without using leaks or FOI requests?
Whistleblowers are vital in exposing what the government does not want you to find out. If they are silenced by the threat of a long jail term, with no public interest defence to protect them, then it is no exaggeration to say lives will ultimately be lost. You only have to look to the NHS scandals which have been exposed by brave public servants to know this is true.
Are you putting any measures in place in case this bill will pass?
The Home Office only recently closed its consultation and we are a long way off from even seeing the detail of the bill. It will be a long process, but trade bodies like the News Media Association and the Media Lawyers Association have been active and responded to the Home Office on behalf of the industry.
The media is united in its opposition to these changes and focused on persuading the government to think again. We have seen journalists from all political viewpoints writing about just how damaging this could be in recent days, and I think we should expect this to continue. Too much is at stake.
What are the potential implications of this proposal on public interest journalism and the freedom of expression?
Chilling. The proposals are disproportionate, oppressive, and deeply harmful to democracy and the public's right to know.
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