Resist these dangerous ‘security’ plans!
THE JULY London Freelance Branch meeting heard from two Duncans Campbell about UK government plans that could make life more hazardous for journalists. The proposals include changes to the Official Secrets Act; frighteningly vague ideas about "civil orders" restricting the activities of those "considered to be involved in hostile activity on the behalf of states"; and registration of "foreign agents". The NUJ has asked members to respond to a consultation - see below.
The first Duncan Campbell to speak is a former Guardian journalist. He introduced a backgrounder for the Freelance over their joint byline. He recalled an NUJ Delegate Meeting in Portrush in Northern Ireland, where they had been greeted with a chant: "there's only 2 Duncan Campbells, there's only two..."
The second Duncan Campbell to speak was prosecuted in 1977 under the Official Secrets Act in what was known as the "ABC" case, after the initials of the three defendants - the others being the late Time Out reporter Crispin Aubrey and the former soldier John Berry. He noted that their sharing a "platform" is a "once-in-40-years event".
Since they last spoke on the same "platform" we have had Freedom Of Information laws, the Human Rights Act. Regulation of Investigatory Powers Acts and much more. And we had a Law Commission tasked with modernising the Official Secrets Act.
The Law Commission's first attempt was, Duncan said, "a disgraceful shabby report produced with no proper attempt to consult". The government "tried to do a sly deal with the Daily Telegraph" to win support. But "immediately after that we won it back with a speed and a ferocity that astounded me - within a week the Daily Mail had taken our side ferociously and the Telegraph did a 180-degree spin and [then Prime Minister David] Cameron was faced with perhaps unprecedented unanimity in the press."
"Now," Duncan reported, "the Home Office is picking up the ball. It wants to throw out the Law Commission's recommendation for a public interest defence." Presented with the Law Commission proposal that there be a Commissioner to protect whistleblowers dealing with Officially Secret revelations, the Home Office response is "to go into a dizzy spin".
The proposals on which the Home Office are consulting are "a serious piece of overreach," he said. "It's testing the water with the idea of 'civil orders' - 'control orders' you might say," referring to controversial anti-terrorism measures that have been repeatedly found by the courts to infringe human rights. These are "an utterly pernicious thing, especially when the Home Secretary says they'd like to think about imposing them outside the courts..."
There are still, Duncan said, "some things in the Law Commission recommendations that are welcome. If taken seriously they would focus attention on the Russian funding of the Conservative Party..."
The government consultation has 39 questions and - as so often - many of these assume that the proposals are basically good things that need only to be tweaked.
Responses can also be sent to CST.Consultation@homeoffice.gov.uk.
The consultation closes at 11:45pm on 22 July 2021 (though the PDF version says 5 pm).
The Freelance editor has written this:
Dear Home Secretary -
The proposals in your consultation on "State Threats" are very seriously threatening to ethical journalism that holds government to account. I note that you have rejected the recommendations by the Law Commission that it intended to provide some safeguards. Particularly concerning is your rejection of a public interest defence.
- Your proposal on search warrants on the face of it seems to further weaken protection for Special Category Material, specifically, from my point of view, for journalistic material. The protections given by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, at least, should be available across the board.
- Concerning any Foreign Influence Registration (FIR) scheme: the key issue here is that the proposal, as framed, would appear to catch journalists working for state broadcasters: Russia Today today, but Deutsche Welle tomorrow? The primary goal of such a scheme is to introduce a means of prosecuting people or organisations without proof of harm or indeed of any activity. Were such a scheme to be introduced, a carve-out for journalistic organisations is essential.
- The proposal on Civil Orders is not defined clearly enough in the consultation to give a definitive response; but the very possibility of a journalist's activities being restricted on the "balance of probabilities" is so deeply concerning that I must oppose it outright.
- The proposal to increase maximum penalties for releasing material is a serious threat to very necessary whistle-blowers - particularly since you appear to have rejected the Law Commission's recommendation of a mechanism for a Commissioner to deal with their concerns.
- Even more concerning, again, is your apparent rejection of a Public Interest defence. This is an absolute necessity if future governments are to be held to account for their actions.
Please feel free to draw inspiration from this when responding yourself. And please copy your response to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Update 21 July 2021
The "unprecedented unanimity" in the press that met the original Law Commission report may possibly be approaching, with a rash of stories across the political spectrum today.
Come on, Telegraph and Times, you can do it... or perhaps stop hiding what you've done.
- On a lighter note, there are at least four Duncan Campbells in journalism and allied trades: there is at least one photographer, and a writer on Classical military matters.