Croydon: Britain under the self-proclaimed “compassionate Conservatives” moved much closer to becoming a police state this week with the passing of Priti Patel’s National Security Bill in the House of Commons.
Warnings have been raised that the bill as it stands “runs the risk of criminalising public interest journalism while ensuring that whistleblowers remain silent”, as the Society of Editors said.
Others have described the bill as “a disaster for the free press”.
Under the National Security Bill, being created as part of a reform of the Official Secrets Act, journalists could be jailed and treated as spies for doing their jobs and disclosing information in the public interest.
The bill was passed without a public interest defence being added, as was called for by the News Media Association, Open Democracy, Society of Editors and the whistleblowers’ charity Protect.
The bill had been drafted when Priti Patel was Home Secretary. It has been criticized for giving the government “disproportionate and vague powers” that could deter media outlets and campaign groups from publishing information that is in the public interest.
Despite attempts to amend the law by MPs – including Labour, the SNP, LibDems, Plaid Cymru and even some Tory backbenchers – it passed its third reading last night. It will now go before the House of Lords.
The cross-party MPs wanted an amendment to the bill intended to protect journalists from the risk of being imprisoned should they report on leaked information that exposes wrongdoing. But it was not chosen for debate by the Speaker.
Seamus Dooley, the National Union of Journalists’ assistant general secretary, said ahead of the vote that it would be a “disaster for the free press and a huge danger for journalists if this bill does not contain an amendment that includes a public interest defence”.
Nik Williams, the policy and campaigns officer at Index on Censorship, said, “While the government has stated its desire to protect journalism, these assurances are no more than words, with no protections to be found in the proposed legislation. This bill represents a severe threat to media freedom, free expression and the public’s right to know.”
Press freedom groups have also expressed alarm at the government’s proposal to widen the definition of what is considered “protected information” to include anything that it hasn’t actively approved for publication.
The Society of Editors’ executive director Dawn Alford said: “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.”
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, which requires a court to rule on police applications to inspect journalistic material.