Sweeping Threat to Free Speech in UK

Journalists and civil-society staffers could be sentenced to life imprisonment for offences committed under a bill championed by Home Secretary Prit Patel, Richard Norton-Taylor reports. 

Home Secretary Priti Patel leaves St Paul’s Cathedral with other ministers after the Platinum Jubilee service on June 3. (Andrew Parsons / No 10)

By Richard Norton-Taylor
Declassified UK

Journalists who receive some funding from foreign governments are at risk of committing offences under a bill that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The risk also applies to individuals working for civil society organisations such as human rights groups. 

It would be an offence to disclose leaked information that would prejudice the “safety or interests of” the U.K.  What constituted such prejudice would be entirely a matter for ministers to decide and there would be no defence to argue that the publication was in the public interest.

The sweeping new threat to freedom of expression is contained in the National Security Bill, which is being championed by Home Secretary Priti Patel. 

Although the government has claimed the measure is designed to prevent new types of spying, the bill is much broader, wider even than the much-criticised section 1 of the 1911 Official Secrets Act it would replace. 

The 1911 Act refers to the obtaining or communication of information “calculated to be or might be or is intended to be directly or indirectly useful to an enemy” (emphasis added).

Also under the bill, ministers and spies would be given immunity from collusion in serious crimes overseas.

Military chiefs of the Five Eyes countries — U.S., U.K., New Zealand, Australia and Canada — met U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, third from left, last week. (Andrew Parsons/No 10 Downing Street)

Life Imprisonment

The Freedom of Information (FoI) Campaign and Article 19, the global campaign for free expression, describe the bill as a major extension of the scope of offences in the 1911 Act. 

They say: “A civil society organisation engaged in legitimate activities which has some funding for work on environmental, human rights, press freedom, asylum, aid or other issues from a friendly government could commit an offence under the bill.”

The prosecution would need to show only that such organisations had made use of leaked information “which they knew or should have known was restricted to avoid prejudicing the U.K. ’s safety or interests and that its use did prejudice the U.K.’s safety or interests.”

The organisations add:

“The decision on what constituted the U.K. ’s safety or interests would be the government’s and could not be challenged in court. If the government decided that the U.K. ’s energy situation required an immediate expansion of fracking or the building of coal fired or nuclear power plants, the use of leaked information which could undermine that policy could be a criminal offence under the bill. 

“The prosecution would only have to show that the information prejudiced the attainment of the government’s policy in the U.K. ’s interests and that the person who used the information received funding from a foreign government.”

On conviction, that person could face life imprisonment.

Overseas Funding

The FoI Campaign and Article 19 point out that the same would be true if an organisation with overseas government funding to confront the problems of asylum seekers used leaked information to oppose the U.K.  government’s asylum policies. 

The government could assert that these were necessary in the U.K.’s interests. 

A journalist working for another government’s state broadcaster – including that of a friendly state – who reports on a leak of protected information which is held to be prejudicial to the U.K. ’s interests, would also commit an offence under the bill if they knew or ought to have known that the broadcast would prejudice the U.K. ’s safety or interests.

The fact that the journalist was paid by the funds of a foreign government department or agency and that the broadcasting organisation itself was financed by such funds would satisfy the foreign power condition. 

They would also face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Yet a journalist working for a U.K.  news organisation responsible for an identical report based on the same leak could not commit this offence because the foreign power condition would not apply.

Richard Norton-Taylor is a British editor, journalist and playwright, and the doyen of British national security reporting. He wrote for The Guardian on defence and security matters and was the newspaper’s security editor for three decades. 

This article is from Declassified UK.

Help Us Beat the Censors!

Donate to Consortium News’

2022 Spring Fund Drive

Donate securely by credit card or check by clicking the red button:



10 comments for “Sweeping Threat to Free Speech in UK

  1. Bob M
    June 9, 2022 at 17:03

    Another step on the UK/US’s rapid decent into tyranny and authoritarianism. The empire is going down the tubes and the empire managers are trying every devious trick they can think of to try and save their sinking ship. This is a very, very dangerous time for those living in the belly of the twin beasts.

  2. Vera Gottlieb
    June 9, 2022 at 12:47

    I know that at times women can be worse than men…This one certainly is a BITCH!!! I get the impression that the UK is going down the tubes…alone?

  3. June 9, 2022 at 08:43

    Things are really falling apart in what we’ve always known as developed democracies. When one hears or read such things promoted by those who have always championed free speech, freedom of information,free press etc one is left wondering whether or not what was really true or was just for convenience purpose but not rooted in true belief? Having been champions of what I have mentioned,many countries were forced or took those examples as something that can be emulated and implemented in their societies. But when those developed democracies start regressing,it becomes a reality problem for journalism,civil society and for all that may be concerned.Therefore,this regression by the UK and other Western might not stop there but can spread to other places where such freedoms were an inconvenience in the first place. On that note, I condemn in the strongest means possible the propagates of such a bill in the United Kingdom.

  4. beth ann goldring
    June 8, 2022 at 19:01

    Well, that should kill any possible remaining suspense about how she will rule on Assange,


    beth goldring

    • Zeliha
      June 9, 2022 at 18:47

      You must keep the faith, as I do, that justice will prevail! Will you give up now, having made it this far? You must believe that Julian Assange will be freed and will be reunited with his loved ones and live happily ever after!

  5. LeoSun
    June 8, 2022 at 18:31

    6.8.22 “Sweeping Threat to Free Expression in UK.” It’s straight-up savage!!!

    Everybody, knows, “the real target is journalists and their sources.”

    Is it coincidence that The Home Office (UK) steps up their game w/an “upgrade” because the UK’s secrecy laws are outdated and no longer counter “modern-day state threats” from countries including Russia and China.” Consequently, under the guise of “toughening the law, again, for the digital age.”

    Questions abound, i.e., EFFECTIVE Date?

    “There has been an Official Secrets Act since 1889, aimed at spies and corrupted civil servants. Lobbied persistently by Vernon Kell of the new Secret Service Bureau (later divided into MI5 and MI6), the UK parliament passed a new, catch-all Official Secrets Act in 1911. It was passed in one day with minimal debate.” Aug 5, 2021

    RETROACTIVE? C H I L L I N G..…”The bill is now set to enter what is known as ‘committee stage’ and ‘report stage’ as it moves through Parliament – a chance for MPs to scrutinise it in detail and vote on changes.” June 8, 2022

    RADIOACTIVE? Without A Doubt! “F A R reaching liabilities … upon the public and the Press”, saying its wide scope “affects anyone and everyone.” (The Newspaper Proprietors’ Association), at the time protested the bill’s.

    “As feared, the legislation was used as much as a tool against journalists and whistleblowers as against foreign spies.”

    Imo, “The Executioners” want US in a constant state of paranoia. Protest & Survive.

    “A little hidden, even contemptible path, is the one that leads to the highway.”

  6. June 8, 2022 at 17:28

    Outrageous! Screw all those drunken stupefied jerks who pretend to be our rulers, time to take them and the scum who fund them down and sentence them to life in the garden. Maybe they will grow something of value for once in their greedy pathetic lives.

    • Jen
      June 10, 2022 at 02:56

      Spending time in nature would be a new kind of green for greedy rulers who have lost their moral compass in the US and elsewhere, as well as people who spend a lot of time indoors or online, or anyone really…whether it’s a real garden with irregular edges like the coastline of Britain or a digital representation, but Plato taught us not to get too excited about geometric shapes. They live in the realm of the “Forms” and “Ideas”. Plato and other philosophers debated whether there was a corresponding reality where imitations of those perfect forms existed in the 3D world. I wonder what their conclusion was? I don’t have the knowledge to sort through those ancient texts.

  7. rosemerry
    June 8, 2022 at 16:43

    Nobody would be surprised, when we see Julian Assange still in prison after ten years of UK showing its idea of freedom of the press, democracy and humanity. Boris Johnson’s recent behaviour helping to destroy any hope of peaceful resolution of the US?NATO?EU refusal to deal with Russia’s reasonable needs for security, leading to the Ukraine debacle which he exacerbated, shows the lack of any interest of his government in human rights of any kind.

    • Realist
      June 9, 2022 at 01:10

      Yes, a decade* of Julian’s life already snatched away through the machinations of the US and the UK governments, and he still has not been convicted of any crime in America. Perhaps the American and British authorities wish they had sent him directly to Guantanamo where his fate would be sealed for his lifetime. Apparently, such is the penalty for making the fiends in Washington (and their poodles in London) look as evil as they truly are.

      *Seven years sequestered in the Ecuadorian embassy in London from 2012 until 2019 whereupon he was detained by UK legal authorities after Ecuador rescinded his sanctuary. He was convicted and sentenced to 50 weeks on bail-jumping charges (satisfied in 2020 at Belmarsh maximum security prison) where he has since been awaiting a decision on potential extradition to the US for trial on charges of espionage, receiving (from US Army PFC B. Manning) and publishing (via Wikileaks, The Guardian and the NY Times) information considered “classified” by the US government.

Comments are closed.