Society responds to National Security Bill amendments

Posted on: February 23, 2023 by Claire Meadows

The Society of Editors (SoE) has responded to the introduction by the government this week of amendments to the National Security Bill that ministers claim will “protect journalistic freedoms”.

The amendments, tabled yesterday ahead of the bill’s report stage in the House of Lords next week, include clarification around the scope of offences contained within the bill and assurances that the law “will protect all legitimate activity”, the Home Office said.

The key government amendment that has been added which the government claims will protect journalists is that a crime will now only have been committed if a disclosure or the publication of a news story would “be likely to” materially assist a foreign intelligence service. 

In addition, language contained within the bill, previously criticised as “vague and ill-defined” would now be amended to clarify that a crime can only be committed if the journalist or whistleblower would have reasonably known of the risks at the time of disclosure by “having regard to other matters known to them”.

The government has said that it will also refocus the Foreign Influence Registration Scheme to limit its scope to foreign powers. 

Responding to the amendments, Dawn Alford, Executive Director of the Society said: “The Society welcomes the government’s recognition of the legitimate concerns of news organisations and press freedom groups that provisions previously contained within the bill risk criminalising public interest journalism and whistle-blowing as well as deterring international collaborations between investigative news outlets.

“We will now look to review the amendments in more detail to ascertain whether they are workable in practice and will offer the protections that are essential to safeguard journalistic activity.”

The Society of Editors and a coalition of media freedom organisation have previously criticised the bill, calling for urgent amendments to what 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.

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).