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November 17, 2022

National Security Bill: MPs miss chance to add public interest defence called for by journalists

There is still a chance for further scrutiny of the National Security Bill in the House of Lords.

By Charlotte Tobitt

The National Security Bill has passed through the House of Commons without a public interest defence being added as called for by journalists, campaign groups and cross-party MPs.

The next chance will be when the bill goes to the House of Lords.

There, peers could listen to the likes of the News Media Association, Society of Editors and the whistleblowers charity Protect to add in a clause for a statutory defence that would enable journalists to continue producing public interest journalism without fear.

Warnings have been raised that the bill as it stands “runs the risk of criminalising public interest journalism while ensuring that whistleblowers remain silent”, as the Society of Editors said, and leaves people at the whim of the Attorney General, director of public prosecutions and Crown Prosecution Service.

Under the National Security Bill, being created under a part reform of the Official Secrets Act, ultimately journalists could be jailed and treated as spies for doing their jobs and disclosing information in the public interest leaked to them by whistleblowers, critics say.

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[Read more: UK National Security Bill threatens to ‘criminalise’ public interest journalism]

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Labour’s Kevan Jones tabled an amendment, backed by SNP, Conservative, Lib Dem and Plaid Cymru MPs, intended to add some protection for journalists and whistleblowers but it was not selected by the speaker for debate on Thursday.

The proposed public interest defence would have taken into consideration the subject matter and harm caused by a disclosure, whether it was made in good faith or for personal gain, and whether the individual believes that any allegations of misconduct disclosed was substantially true.

Labour’s John McDonnell, secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, pointed out how united the journalism industry is against measures in the bill: “What this bill has successfully done – I have never seen it before – is unite the Society of Editors with the NUJ and various campaigning bodies.”

Index on Censorship editor Martin Bright similarly described concerns over the bill as “an unusual bout of consensus”. The campaign group teamed up with the National Union of Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and Open Democracy to lobby for a public interest defence to avoid a “chilling effect… on the practice of investigative journalism”.

McDonnell told the Commons he had been “hoping” an amendment would be selected for Thursday’s debate “to provide at least some protection – the public interest protection”.

If the House of Lords do not insert a public interest defence, “a review of the legislation at an early stage will be critical and may result in such a provision,” he added.

The SNP’s Stuart McDonald said that although the UK’s espionage laws need updating they must not criminalise behaviour that should not be criminalised, including by journalists and whistleblowers.

The bill passed its third reading in the Commons on Thursday without a formal vote. It will now go to the Lords for further scrutiny at a later date.

Before the debate, a Home Office spokesperson argued there was no need for a public interest defence because the bill “target harmful activity by states, not leaks or whistleblowing activity”.

“There are already safeguards which prevent this bill capturing whistleblowers which negate the need for a public interest defence.” Critics disagree with this assessment, however.

Also on Thursday the House of Lords addressed the arrest of three journalists last week by Hertfordshire Police at Just Stop Oil protests on the M25.

During a debate on the Public Order Bill Tory frontbencher Lord Murray of Blidworth told Parliament the arrests were “clearly wrong” while his departmental colleague Lord Sharpe of Epsom said they “should not have happened”.

But Lord Sharpe added of the bill under contention that the Conservatives “don’t agree that more powers will lead to further arrests of journalists. The issue really does lie with the training of police.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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