ion the modern state, it is obvious that some government information should remain secret. tuttavia, the power to conceal should not be open to abuse so that a government is protected from censure or humiliation, or able to suppress wrongdoing. Yet that is exactly where the state could end up if plans for a new system of secrecy without safeguards are enacted.
In its suggested reforms to the four Official Secrets Acts, the Home Office proposes an extremely hostile environment for journalism. The plans would make it easier to prosecute whistleblowers and more difficult to defend disclosing information that the government says is damaging to national security. Making journalists and sources liable in criminal law will surely deter them from revealing that the government has been up to something disastrous for British interests, or morally appalling, or both. Such plans ought to send a shudder down the spine of all those who care about the public’s right to know.
Ministers rightly want to keep government secrets from foreign enemies. Ma this urge should not be at the cost of a vigorous free press. To meet the threat from hostile nations, the government proposes longer jail sentences for journalists. This is unlikely to stop Russia or China, where dissenting scribes are routinely locked up. Anziché, it is likely to lend legitimacy to those regimes that encourage a climate of contempt for journalism and criminalise opposition.
With very little fanfare, the Home Office proposes giving the state the power to put journalists and their sources in the dock for disclosures that did not cause harm and were not likely to do so. At present, if the crown chooses to prosecute the press for revealing official secrets, it must show that a defendant had “a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state”. Journalists acting on behalf of the public interest in transparent, accountable government should clear that bar. Under the proposed reforms, they could be sent to jail based on a government theory that their stories may be “capable” of causing damage. This feels like an attempt to intimidate journalists into docility.
The government hides behind the Law Commission, which last year proposed that a new espionage act should allow government prosecutors to benefit from a lower burden of proof. The commissioners balanced this regressive change with a progressive one: the creation of a public interest defence available to intelligence officers, public servants and journalists alike. Such a defence would put the UK on a par with its Five Eyes peers Australia, Canada and New Zealand. But the government appears to have rejected this nuanced approach. Anziché, it suggests adopting the most chilling aspects of the original commission advice while rejecting measures that would protect the role of journalism in a democracy.
The press already has a voluntary system under which editors can unofficially seek advice on security matters, a fact unacknowledged by the Home Office consultation. Ministers have said that maintaining press freedom is a “priority” and that they will listen to responses before developing final proposals. One can only hope they do so. Erasing the distinction between spying and leaking will allow the UK government to place itself beyond the reach of the law. Secrets will still spill out, but probably in some corner of the web without the careful editing that responsible journalism can bring to bear.
Whitehall is too fond of secrecy. It is absurd to think that it was once forbidden to name the heads of the UK intelligence services. In the past decade, revelations from WikiLeaks to Edward Snowden to the Pegasus project have demonstrated the extent of official impunity when it comes to national security. The sensible political response would be to halt such actions and impose a system of oversight and democratic control. Putting state activities beyond sight with laws that control the press would represent a new stage in the growth of authoritarian government in Britain.