DM2021 5PM Talk-in: NUJ members defend the right to know

  • 20 May 2021

Whether it is the Cabinet Office FOI Clearing House, the land ownership registers or official secrets laws, journalists face a range of obstacles when reporting in the public interest in the UK.

As part of the week of events linked to the union's delegate conference, at an online public meeting on Tuesday night, attention turned to journalistic ethics alongside the decline of transparency and accountability in public life in the UK.

The union brought together different NUJ members, working on the front-line as reporters and investigative journalists, to discuss their work and the associated challenges they face. NUJ president Sian Jones welcomed people to the event and she chaired the meeting.

The theme of the evening was 'defending the right to know', inspired by the first principle of the NUJ ethical code of code which 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."

Speakers included: Jenna Corderoy - a reporter for openDemocracy investigations team; The Guardian's reporter Rob Evans; Paul Lashmar - investigative journalist and head of journalism at City University; Lizzie Dearden - home affairs and security correspondent at the Independent; Aasma Day - former North of England correspondent for HuffPost and JP's investigations unit; and Tim Dawson from the NUJ's national executive council (NEC).

Jenna Corderoy outlined the work she has done at openDemocracy to reveal the bureaucratic restrictions and clamp down on FOI requests, stating that: "there is a transparency crisis at the heart of Westminster."

OpenDemocracy have recently published a report entitled Art of Darkness that shows how the UK government are undermining freedom of information. As part of the same journalistic project, openDemocracy have taken the government to court to compel them to release the details about the Cabinet Office Clearing House which is accused of blocking and vetting FOI requests. The Cabinet Office has so far refused to disclose the details despite the FOI watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, ordering it to do so in July 2020. Jenna has been working to uncover this information for the last three years. Jenna went on to make suggestions about how we can individually and collectively defend the right to know:

  1. If an FOI request is refused then the decision should be challenged.
  2. If an FOI request is not handled properly by the authorities, then journalists should submit a meta data request (which is a request to access the internal communications around the handling the initial FOI request submitted).
  3. Journalists should submit a subject access request under the Data Protection Act (this is a request to gain access to emails and internal correspondence that relates to the personal information stored about the individual who submitted the FOI request).
  4. Keep up the increased media coverage of these issue

Jenna emphasised that FOI has been responsible for "incredible scoops" and is a tool that allows both journalists and citizens to access vital information and hold the powerful to account.

Rob Evans has spent decades uncovering information in the public interest, ranging from the spycops to the black spider memos. He opened his contribution to the meeting by reminding attendees that the Freedom of Information Act was introduced in 2005, saying it "has always been under threat". Rob urged other NUJ members to keep using FOI to show how useful it is.

Rob was involved in the 10-year FOI battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, the case focused on the publication of secret letters written by Prince Charles to British government ministers, and the court ruled that an attempt by the state to keep them concealed was unlawful.

Rob also talked about his reporting of the undercover policing scandal in which more than 1,000 political groups have been spied on by police over the last four decades. He emphasised the importance of journalistic sources and whistle-blowers and urged other NUJ members to "treat them seriously and treat them well" while highlighting the important role of Peter Francis, the whistle-blower who came forward to explain how the undercover policing operation had been run. He ended his contribution to the event by saying "Our job is to challenge power, not to suck up to the rich and famous."

Paul Lashmar started off by saying the focus of the different contributions from NUJ members speaking at the event were essentially about accountability, and Paul believes investigative journalistic endeavours have become more difficult since Snowden, he said that in this regard it "feels like we are going backwards". He made reference to his work in the 1970s at a time where it felt like journalists were winning the arguments about scrutiny and accountability but that this has become much harder now.

Paul talked about his recent investigative work linked to the wealthy politician with historic links to the slave trade, Richard Drax MP. Paul highlighted some of the difficulties he faced when accessing information from both the Land Registry and the parliamentary Registers of Interests, adding: "as an investigative journalist I have learnt you always look at the silence". He said the regulatory systems rely on self-certifying and they have not been sufficiently designed to deal with conflicts of interest. He argued that the government pretend to have rigorous systems in place, but it is underpinned by self-regulation and unless there is some form of enforcement then the relevant laws are made meaningless.

Lizzie Dearden focused her contribution on her insight and experience of various attempts to intimidate her and how specific individuals try to prevent the reporting of information that relates to extremism and terrorism. She said there is a climate of direct hostility towards the media from across the far right in the UK. They have zoned in on specific journalists on social media rather than go to the editor or outlet which was more common in the past. 

Far right leader Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (Tommy Robinson) had threatened Lizzie in a bid to prevent the publication of a story and was issued with a stalking protection order by Westminster Magistrates’ Court. He had sent messages to Lizzie and turned up at her house late at night.

Yellow Vest protestor, James Goodard, has been given a restraining order and handed a fine after calling Lizzie 'vile scum of the earth' when he confronted and abused the journalist at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in 2019.

Lizzie said that her experiences are part of a wider context in which extremists incite online abuse targeting journalists and employ a range of intimidation techniques. She also highlighted the inconsistent response of the police, which tends to be better when it is an in-person incident when compared to being targeted online. She went further to add that this affects all kinds of journalists reporting on different issues, adding: "as journalists and as an industry we must keep an eye on our freedom to report." Lizzie also stressed the need to educate journalists on how to protect themselves and compel the authorities to act.

Aasma Day raised the key issue of time as one of the biggest obstacles for investigative journalists, because journalists need time to build relationships with sources and build trust. She said it is challenging be to be able to uphold journalistic values when there are industry cuts, staffing shortages and there is the constant pressure to get things done quickly.

Aasma also talked about the importance of the media reflecting the society in which we live and the need to go out and talk to people from all walks of life. She said she had been lucky in previous roles to have been given the time to go and find hidden stories about people who were living on the margins of society and their stories were reported as part of a series about Preston and she also published a story uncovering Islamophobia in the NHS for HuffPost.

Tim Dawson focused on the NUJ campaigns and activity to defend the right to know. He said journalists are now operating in a "hostile environment with multiple threats". He outlined a range of key themes that the union has been campaigning on:

  1. Securing key worker status for journalists during the global health pandemic, the union had to fight to ensure that newsgatherers were able to go out and report
  2. Responding to the increasing restrictions on court reporting, it has become harder for journalists to access video links to be able to cover court hearings during the lockdown
  3. The NUJ campaigned on behalf of members Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey who were forced to spend two years fighting a press freedom battle arising from their investigative and award-winning film No Stone Unturned. Trevor and Barry were arrested in Belfast in August 2018 and their homes and offices were raided. In May 2019, Belfast appeal court judges quashed the warrants for their arrests.
  4. The NUJ has campaigned against the extradition of Julian Assange, the union has consistently highlighted that some of his actions were identical to those undertaken by most investigative journalists, with the judgment in the case leaving open the door for a future US administrations to confect a similar indictment against a journalist.
  5. Official secrets legislative reform, the union has always supported NUJ members who have been threatened with the official secrets laws and launched a campaign in 2017 in response to the first set of reform proposals published by the Law Commission. On 13 May 2021 the Home Office launched a new consultation on "legislation to counter state threats".

The latest Home Office consultation sets out the government’s proposals to update the existing official secrets and espionage laws - the authorities intend to create new offences and "improve" the ability of the state to protect official data. The Home office proposals cover the Official Secrets Acts of 1911, 1920, 1939 and 1989 and they intend to make changes to the law affecting journalists and their sources (known technically as the unauthorised disclosure of official material and its onward disclosure).

Tim stressed the need for all NUJ members and media outlets to take the reform proposals seriously and to respond to the current consultation.

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