Journalists will not be criminalised under forthcoming legislation to update national security laws, the government has sought to assure the media.
Speaking during the National Security Bill’s report stage in the House of Lords last night (Wednesday 1 March 2023), Home Officer Minister Lord Sharpe of Epsom said that journalism which “might incidentally be capable of assisting a foreign intelligence” would not be considered a criminal offence under the new bill.
The Society of Editors has been a vocal critic of a lack of protections for journalists within the proposed legislation which it says poses a “grave threat” to press freedom. Central among the Society’s concerns is the lack of a public interest defence for journalists and whistle-blowers as well as concern around proposals for a “Foreign Power Condition” which could see any organisation receiving foreign funding, including news organisations, caught up within the legislation. The Society has called for the definition of a foreign power condition to be narrowed to specifically exclude journalists and media organisations.
Seeking to assure the media that journalistic activity was not the focus of the new legislation during the debate last night, Lord Sharpe said: “I want to reassure the media sector that publishing an article that is critical of the UK Government and might incidentally be capable of assisting a foreign intelligence will not fall within the scope of this offence.
“Nor would the handling of materials in the course of genuine journalistic activities fall within this offence, nor likely the other offences in this Bill.”
The minister concluded: “The Government may profoundly disagree with the conclusions of some journalists, but we will not hide behind the criminal law to suppress genuine competing views and it is almost inconceivable that genuine journalism would be caught within the threshold for criminal activity.”