View all newsletters
Sign up for our free email newsletters

Fighting for quality news media in the digital age.

  1. Publishers
  2. Digital Journalism
July 27, 2017updated 28 Jul 2017 9:39am

Proposed reforms to official secrets ‘regime’ would create ‘damaging inroads’ into press freedom, warns NMA

By Freddy Mayhew

The News Media Association has today warned that proposed reforms to the “regime protecting official information” would create “damaging and dangerous inroads into press freedom” if given the go ahead.

It said consultative proposals for changes to the Official Secrets Act – dubbed the “Espionage Act” – the Data Protection Act and “other unauthorised disclosure offences” would make “whistle-blowers, journalists and media organisations prime targets for state surveillance and criminal prosecution”.

The association, which represents national and regional UK news publishers, outlined the news media industry’s “wide-ranging objections” to proposals in a 20-page document.

It said: “The proposed new regime threatens to be both retrograde and repressive. It would extend and then entrench official secrecy. It would be conducive to official cover up. It would deter, prevent and punish investigation and disclosure of wrongdoing and matters of legitimate public interest.”

The association warned there would be a “chilling effect on investigative journalism” because proposals would “make it easier for the Government to prosecute anyone involved in obtaining, gathering and disclosing information, even if no damage were caused, and irrespective of the public interest”.

It added: “The regime could lead to increased use of state surveillance powers against the media under the guise of suspected media involvement in offences, posing a threat to confidential sources and whistle-blowers.”

The NMA warned that as well as “clamping down” on whistle-blowers, the changes would undermine established voluntary safeguards against damaging disclosures.

Content from our partners
Pugpig named best media technology partner of 2024 by AOP
Cannes Lions: The world's best creativity all in one place
L'Equipe signs content syndication deal with The Content Exchange

It said: “NMA members and the wider media do strive to avoid harm and ensure lawful publication. They use the long established voluntary systems, specifically designed to reduce the risk of inadvertent harm.”

Press freedom campaigners have labelled proposed “Espionage Act” reforms, put forward by the Law Commission in February as “an attack on democracy” and warned they would be on a collision course with existing freedom of information powers if adopted.

The existing Official Secrets Act was drafted to protect Britain’s secrets from Germany before World War One and states that defendants “engaged in the espionage type conduct, must have intended for it to benefit an enemy”. It passed into law in 1911.

The new proposed law states this offence can be committed by “someone who not only communicates information” but also “by someone who obtains or gathers information” – i.e. a journalist.

An exemption for journalists under The Data Protection Act currently being threatened by the European Union’s planned General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law reforms, set to take effect in May 2018.

Summing up its concerns, the NMA said: “The past pursuit of journalists and their sources under all these laws is well documented. The NMA has previously advocated reforms that would respect freedom of expression and enable public interest investigations and disclosures.

“Instead, the Law Commission, as charged by the Cabinet Office, proposes yet more efficient tools for government prosecution, criminal sanctions and suppression of public interest investigation and disclosures by the media.

“There is no evidence to justify new repressive criminal laws to protect official data.

“The NMA hopes that the Law Commission will reconsider its proposals as a result of the consultation. It is in any event vital that the new government – or any future government- does not seek to introduce such restrictive changes to the criminal law.”

Picture: Pixabay

Email to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

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.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
Thank you

Thanks for subscribing.

Websites in our network