Is whistleblowing investigative journalism or spying?

Posted by on 22 juillet 2021

How a proposed secrecy law would recast journalism as spying

Home Office plans would remove the public interest defence for whistleblowing, and could put reporters in jail

Priti Patel
‘Endorsed by the home secretary, Priti Patel, the consultation into secrecy argues that press disclosures can be worse than spying.’ Photograph: Jessica Taylor/Reuters

Here we go again. Nearly 50 years ago one of us was arrested under the Official Secrets Act for working on a story for Time Out magazine, where the other one of us was the news editor. This led to the so-called ABC case, named after fellow reporter Crispin Aubrey, a brave ex-soldier whistleblower called John Berry, and the aforesaid Campbell. A lengthy Old Bailey trial followed in 1978 and, with it, a major discrediting of the use of the act against the press.

Soon after, the power of the pre-first world war, empire-era secrecy laws sank further when a jury acquitted the late Clive Ponting, a senior civil servant who sent MPs information about government deception during the Falklands war. A hasty law reform flopped in 2004 when evidence against the GCHQ whistleblower Katharine Gun had to be withdrawn at the last minute. The government feared her trial would reveal that it had been told the Iraq war would be illegal.

The Home Office now wants harder and more extensive secrecy laws that would have the effect of deterring sources, editors and reporters, making them potentially subject to uncontrolled official bans not approved by a court, and punished much more severely if they do not comply. In noisy political times, a government consultation issued two months ago has had worryingly little attention. Although portrayed as countering hostile activity by state actors, the new laws would, if passed, ensnare journalists and sources whose job is reporting “unauthorised disclosures” that are in the public interest.

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