Lord Black: Industry "deeply concerned" by reviews
23 February 2017
Lord Black of Brentwood has written to the Cabinet Office expressing media concerns that legislative proposals are increasingly threatening the public’s right to know.
In a letter to Ben Gummer, Minister for the Cabinet Office, Lord Black cited last year’s review of the Freedom of Information Act and the current Law Commission’s project on Protection of Official Data as examples of attempts to strengthen the government’s control of information.
Black, chairman of the News Media Association’s Legal, Policy and Regulatory Affairs committee said that the industry was deeply concerned over attempts to stifle the media’s ability to report on matters of legitimate public interest.
He said: “Press freedom, freedom of information and freedom of expression are core concerns of the NMA and its members. We have been surprised and deeply concerned by Cabinet Office reviews aimed at strengthening the government’s control over information and restricting the public’s right to know.
“First the Independent Commission on review of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, now the Law Commission ‘s project on Protection of Official Data, charging the Law Commission to consider how to strengthen the criminal law’s controls and sanctions for unauthorised obtaining and disclosure of government information. This is hugely threatening to publishers, journalists and their sources.”
Lord Black warned against implementing proposals by the Law Commission that could see journalists jailed for up to 14 years for receiving leaked material under a new Espionage Act. The proposals have been opposed by the Society of Editors and the News Media Association alongside other industry bodies and media organisations.
He added: “The Law Commission’s consultative proposals, if adopted, would have deeply disturbing consequences for press freedom. The Commission’s approach would indeed make it easier for the government to prosecute, convict and imprison anyone involved in obtaining, gathering and disclosing information, even if no damage were caused, and irrespective of the public interest, which might indeed outweigh any such damage.
“The proposed new regime threatens to be both retrograde and repressive. It would extend and then entrench official secrecy. It would be conducive to official cover up. It would deter, prevent and punish investigation and disclosure of wrongdoing and matters of legitimate public interest.”
The Law Commission’s proposals, if approved, would make it an offence to “obtain or gather” official secrets and will extend the scope of the law to cover information that damages “economic well-being”.
The government is currently consulting on the recommendations to which the Society of Editors will be responding. Other interested parties have until 3 April 2017 to respond.
Read Lord Black’s letter in full here.