Official Secrets Act: UK Planned Reform Makes Criminals Out of Journalists

In a remarkable twist, this new legislation equates investigative journalism with spying, writes Karin Wahl-Jorgensen. 

U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel at Essex Police new recruits’ graduation parade, October 2020. (Pippa Fowles, No 10 Downing Street, Flickr)

By Karin Wahl-Jorgensen
Cardiff University

The U.K. government has proposed new legislation to counter state threats, including an overhaul of the Official Secrets Act. According to the Home Office, the new legislation is necessary because “the existing legislation does not sufficiently capture the discernible and very real threat posed by state threats.”

If passed, this new legislation has serious consequences for journalism and its ability to hold governments to account. This is because the proposed bill includes a major crackdown on “unauthorised disclosures,” or leaks of sensitive information.

Much hard-hitting investigative journalism is based on such leaks. High-profile examples of stories based on unauthorised disclosures include Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 of the activities of U.S. and U.K. spy agencies, including major global surveillance programmes, in 2013. The leaks led to a broader debate about the role of the state in facilitating mass surveillance.

Unauthorised disclosures also paved the way for the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal. This provided evidence of widespread abuse of the parliamentary expenses system, including MPs taking advantage of a generous second home allowance, and charging the public purse for £1,700 floating duck houses and £2,000 for moat cleaning.

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These leaks brought to light important information in the public interest, and led to widespread resignations and legislative and policy change, including the establishment of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.

The Official Secrets Act has been used in the past to prosecute individuals responsible for disclosing sensitive information. For example, David Shayler, an MI5 agent, was found guilty of releasing documents about the spy agency’s activities to the Daily Mail in 1997.

However, as the Home Office consultation makes clear, the proposed law enables harsher punishments for journalists and their sources. In a remarkable twist, it equates investigative journalism with spying. The consultation suggests that the Home Office does “not consider that there is necessarily a distinction in severity between espionage and the most serious unauthorised disclosures”.

At the same time, the Home Office takes a dim view of the need to protect journalists. In response to the Law Commission’s proposal to introduce a “public interest” defence which would provide protection to journalists, the consultation document argues that “these proposals could in fact undermine our efforts to prevent damaging unauthorised disclosures.”

To highlight the serious threat posed by such disclosure, it proposes an increase in prison terms for such offences, from two years and up to 14 years.

This represents a direct threat to the ability of journalists and their sources to make public information about wrongdoing in the public interest.

Press Freedom Under Threat

The legislation arrives at a fraught moment for press freedom around the world. Recent years have seen growing physical and legal threats to journalists, against the backdrop of a rise of authoritarian and populist regimes. In that context, national security laws often provide the grounds for prosecution of journalists and others who may hold governments to account.

Over the past two decades, scholars have identified the rise of “securitisation” — a process whereby claims about national security come to override any other concerns, and are used widely to limit the scope for dissent and challenge.

The new law should be seen as part of a broader project on the part of Priti Patel’s Home Office to cut down civil liberties by legislative means. For example, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which was recently passed in Parliament, allows for police to shut down protests in England and Wales at will.

Such laws are not merely pieces of paper. Instead, they are frequently used to crack down on critical voices. In 2019, 15 activists were convicted of a terrorism offence after chaining themselves around an immigration removal flight at Stansted Airport. While the conviction was later overturned, the case highlighted the potential for creative and politically charged interpretations of security-related laws.

The Official Secrets Act reforms, if passed, are likely to have a significant chilling effect on journalists and their sources. As research has shown, the threat of prosecution and prison makes sources more reluctant to share sensitive information in the public interest, and makes journalists less likely to pursue such information in the first place.

The Home Office has responded to concerns about the chilling effect of the proposed legislation, stressing that journalists will “remain free to hold the Government to account.”The Conversation

Karin Wahl-Jorgensen is professor and director of research development and environment at the School of Journalism, Cardiff University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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10 comments for “Official Secrets Act: UK Planned Reform Makes Criminals Out of Journalists

  1. August 7, 2021 at 02:37


  2. nwwoods
    August 6, 2021 at 17:19

    The UK has always been a good deal more authoritarian than the US, difficult as that may be to believe.

    • historicus
      August 7, 2021 at 11:54

      Exactly. Memories of heavy-handed English press censorship led to the First Amendment. The Wilkes after whom Wilkes-Barre is named was a London printer famously imprisoned for content displeasing to George III in his newspaper The North-Briton. The first newspaper in the American colonies was banned after its first issue for publishing “without authority”, mirroring the state of the press in the mother country. And it was once illegal to report the doings of Parliament in the English press. As a young reporter Samuel Johnson got around this by using colorful pseudonyms for the MP’s in his regular column in the Gentleman’s Magazine, which he titled “Debates in the Senate of Lilliput”.

  3. firstpersoninfinite
    August 6, 2021 at 13:41

    “The Home Office has responded to concerns about the chilling effect of the proposed legislation, stressing that journalists will “remain free to hold the Government to account.”” Of course they will remain free – until just after committing the act of holding the Government to account. Orwell was right about politics gutting the expected meanings of words for authoritarian reasons.

  4. John Neal Spangler
    August 6, 2021 at 12:30

    UK keeps going more totalitarian. It is hardly a democracy now.

  5. Guy
    August 6, 2021 at 11:30

    If this keeps up it will end up being illegal to criticize governments and properly hold them to account .
    The world really has gone full draconian .

  6. mgr
    August 6, 2021 at 10:53

    No wonder the UK tories were desperate to get out of the EU.

  7. Theo Baumann
    August 6, 2021 at 07:13

    Never ever investigate crooked POLITICIANS, as POLITICIANS are Humankind’s Poison !!

  8. Andrew Peter Nichols
    August 5, 2021 at 20:44

    First they came for…and I did nothing ….then the came forAssange and still I did nothing but join the smears and denigration…thrn they came for me….and it was too late.

  9. Lois Gagnon
    August 5, 2021 at 17:20

    911, the gift to the National Security State that keeps on giving.

Comments are closed.