Secrets and lies – are Boris’ assurances that journalists won’t be treated as spies believable?

  • 03 Aug 2021

NEC member Tim Dawson assesses the PM's latest comments

“I don’t want a world in which people are prosecuted for doing what they think is their public duty”, Boris Johnson told Nick Ferrari at the end of July. “We want to avoid anything to interrupt the process of good journalism and bringing new and important facts into the public domain,” he continued.

The LBC show host was quizzing the prime minister about the government’s plans to reform the official secrets legislation. Had those words been uttered by any previous prime minister, their effect, behind the closed doors of the Home Office, would have been akin to a hefty kick to the side of a wasps nest.

Senior civil servants would have hurriedly gathered to measure the words of the head of government against their proposals. Facing them would be a yawning gap. Something approaching panic would have gripped the mandarins. For a prime minister to torpedo a major proposal without prior warning is unprecedented. Soon the Home Secretary would be summoned in the hope that she could clarify the changed political imperatives.

Of course, there would be enormous frustration in the Home Office. It has taken at least six years to get the proposals to this stage, and for their supporters, the best-case scenario might be for new laws to be operational by 2023.

Given the timeline, it is likely that draft legislation is at a late stage of preparation. Framed as it is in the consultation, the impact on journalism of these changes will be profound.

Take, for example, this recommendation from the government’s plans: “Although there are differences in the mechanics of and motivations behind espionage and unauthorised disclosure offences, there are cases where an unauthorised disclosure may be as or more serious, in terms of intent and/or damage.”

Here ‘unauthorised disclosure’ means a document leaked to a journalist and published in a newspaper. ‘Espionage’ means foreign spies stealing state secrets in the hope of harming or undermining UK interests. The recommendation is clearly that, in some circumstances, the journalist should be dealt with more severely than the spy. Prison sentences of up to 14 years for such offences have been suggested.

That is not all. The consultation also proposes to increase the powers afforded to police when searching a journalist’s belongings. As things stand, information, be it handwritten notes, photographs or video footage, gathered by a journalist is considered to be ‘special procedure material’ under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984. Should the police wish to inspect such material, they must go to court and persuade a judge that a criminal investigation necessitates such invasion.

This requirement provides a significant safeguard when a journalist undertakes to protect a confidential source, or wishes to assure those they are photographing that their material is not simply adding to the evidence available to police. The Home Office’s proposals would give greater discretion to police to ignore this requirement during the heat of a raid.

Much of the detail of the proposals was suggested in a report by the Law Commission. The commission considered these issues at the request of the Home Office. Its legal experts recognised that toughening up official secrets laws might have an adverse effect on honest whistleblowers and the journalists to whom they spoke. To take account of this, the commission suggested enshrining in law that those who breached the Official Secrets Acts in the public interest, should be legally protected.

The Home Office consultation casts aside this suggestion in a sentence: “We are not convinced that the Law Commission’s recommendations strike the right balance in this area.”

So what did happen behind Home Office doors after Johnson left Ferrari’s studio? My guess is that those who are piloting these proposals on to the statute books paid scarcely any attention to the prime minister’s words.

The reason? Because, like everyone else, the civil service knows full well that Boris Johnson says what is expedient. He is happy to assert almost anything to take the heat off, whatever the situation, and is perfectly relaxed when moments later it transpires that the opposite is true.

Measured commentators such as Peter Kelner, compile lists of ‘Boris’ top ten lies of his first year as Prime Minister’. Dominic Cummings paints a vivid picture of the administrative chaos within Johnson’s Downing Street. Right-of-centre authors such as Peter Oborne and Anne Applebaum have written entire books about the Prime Minister’s untruths.

Had the leader of any other administration performed Johnson’s radio-studio volte farce, free-speech campaigners would have rightly celebrated. An undertaking from someone whose commitments are so malleable, however, is all but worthless.

So, if the executive can’t be trusted, we must take the issue to parliament. Support from cross-party MPs and Lords is the only certain approach to safeguarding journalistic freedoms.

Parliamentarians who profess to support unfettered reporting, untethered media and free expression must be pressed explicitly to commit to opposing these measures. If enough of them do that, then neither the prime minister’s weasel words, nor the home secretary’s reactionary tendencies can will propel these dangerous proposals on to the statute book.

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