NUJ calls for public interest defence for unauthorised disclosures
Union warns the Home Office plans are a severe threat to journalism
The NUJ has called on the UK government to introduce a public interest defence in law for journalists investigating and reporting on state wrongdoing.
As part of the union's response to the Home Office consultation on reforming official secrets laws, entitled: Legislation to counter state threats, the authorities set out their intention to create new offences and "improve" the ability of the state to protect official data and information.
Many of the government's proposals conflate journalism, espionage and “hostile activity” and there appears to be the intention to increase the risks and penalties for journalists and media organisations acting in the public interest.
The NUJ code of conduct was first established in 1936 and it is the only ethical code for journalists written by journalists. The union’s ethical code states:
"A journalist at all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed."
The union's submission to the Home Office states:
- The threat of prosecution has been used against NUJ members in an attempt to silence public interest journalism.
- There should be explicit limits within any new legislation to restrict extra-territorial offences in regard to journalists and media organisations abroad.
- New legislation should not remove the requirement for prosecutors to prove that an unauthorised disclosure was damaging.
- Whistleblowers and journalists acting in the public interest should not be subjected to increased prison sentences .
- Journalism should not be equated with espionage and media workers should not be criminalised under any future espionage law.
- The NUJ does not support the vetting of lawyers to protect official information.
- The NUJ supports the creation of an independent statutory commissioner.
- The NUJ supports the introduction of a public interest defence and a person should not be guilty of an offence if that person proves, on the balance of probabilities, that: (a) it was in the public interest for the information disclosed to be known by the recipient; and (b) the manner of the disclosure was in the public interest.
The union has pledged to campaign to secure a public interest defence in any future law proposed by the government.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:
“Government proposals to reform the Official Secrets Act are truly chilling and authoritarian. They could brand journalists spies, just for doing their job. This has deep consequences for democracy and makes it easier for the government to block newspapers from revealing stories, such as ministers who break social distancing rules.”
Download the NUJ submission -NUJ submission Home Office official secrets reform.pdf