The Society has expressed its concern that the National Security Bill, which passed its third reading in the Commons in November 2022, poses a grave threat to press freedom and “rides roughshod” over established journalistic protections.
Speaking ahead of the decision by MPs to vote in favour of the controversial bill on the 17 November 2022, the Society said that it was essential that a public interest defence was added to the bill alongside further amendments to safeguard journalists and whistle-blowers. A public interest defence was hoped to be included via an amendment backed by cross-party MPs however it passed without inclusion. The bill will now go to the House of Lords for further scrutiny.
The Society has joined a coalition of organisations calling for further amendments to the bill with the Society adding that the government’s failure to include a public interest defence clause ran the risk of “criminalising public interest journalism” while ensuring that whistle-blowers remained silent. The Society has also criticised proposals that look set to water down existing protections against police accessing journalistic material.
Dawn Alford, Executive Director of the Society of Editors said: “Since the publication of the Law Commission’s consultation paper on the Protection of Official Data in 2017, the Society has joined other organisations in leading the call for the inclusion of a statutory public interest defence for anyone charged with an unauthorised disclosure under the Official Secrets Act 1989.
“Despite widespread consensus as to the absolute necessity of a public interest defence, it remains baffling as to why the government has chosen to omit one. Such a defence is backed by both the Law Commission and Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights and, without it, there are no adequate protections to ensure that those that bring information that is demonstrably in the public interest into the public domain are free from the threat of lengthy jail terms and prosecution. As it stands, the National Security Bill runs the risk of criminalising public interest journalism while ensuring that whistle-blowers remain silent.”
The coalition of organisations calling for further amendments to the bill include the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Index on Censorship, openDemocracy, Reporters Without Borders and the News Media Association (NMA).
In submissions to the government, media organisations have criticised the omission of a public interest defence for journalists and whistle-blowers and pointed to the fact that the only protection provided will be the willingness of the Attorney General-of-the-day and Crown Prosecution Service to refuse to prosecute or determine that such a prosecution is not in the public interest. Other proposals that have been criticised include the lack of an independent statutory commissioner to support whistleblowing processes.
In addition to the inclusion of a public interest defence, the Society said that the proposals were on a “collision course” with established protections for journalistic material under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) which currently requires a court to rule on police applications to inspect journalistic material.
Alford added: “At present, police forces must apply to a court to access journalistic material however the proposals contained within the National Security Bill are on a collision-course with established procedures and would see police superintendents given the power to authorise search-warrants and the inspection of journalistic material. Such proposals would strip away longstanding safeguards that are in place to prevent the wrongful access of journalistic material and are a risk to sources and investigative journalism more widely.”
The amendments called for by the coalition of journalism organisations can be found here.