NUJ asks journalists and media outlets to respond to official secrets reform

  • 15 Jun 2021

The union has urged media organisations and journalists to respond to the latest Home Office consultation setting out proposals to update the existing official secrets and espionage laws.

In the consultation 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.

These proposals also 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).

The NUJ first launched a campaign opposing the Law Commissions proposals to reform official secrets legislation in 2017, arguing at the time for the introduction of a public interest defence in law for journalists. The 2017 proposals were then shelved, and a new and updated report was published in September 2020. The latest Home Office consultation builds on the previous proposals.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said:

"The union has consistently defended NUJ members who have taken a brave stand when they have been threatened with official secrets legislation.

"The first NUJ members to face such threats were Duncan Campbell and Mark Hosenball when they wrote about electronic state surveillance in Time Out magazine in May 1976. Hosenball, who had been working for the Evening Standard, was subsequently deported on the grounds that he was a danger to national security.

"The most recent example of official secrets legislation being used in an attempt to threaten and silence journalists was the case of 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.

"The NUJ has been keeping a watching brief on the government's agenda since the first set of proposals came out in 2017 and we are now re-launching our campaigning efforts to defend journalists and journalism that operates in the public interest.

"We remain fundamentally opposed to any moves by the state that would make it harder to report on national security or poses harsher penalties for journalists, their sources and whistle-blowers.

"The NUJ has a proud history of defending a free press and the public's right to know and now we want to alert the whole industry to the potential dangers that are currently emanating from government."

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