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BBC veteran John Simpson leads backlash against ‘dangerous’ plans to muzzle journalists

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A furious backlash grew today against plans for journalists to be imprisoned for embarrassing the Government, with politicians urged to ‘protect the free press’.

Reporters given leaked documents would be treated similarly to spies and face jail sentences of up to 14 years under planned changes to the Official Secrets Act.

A consultation by Priti Patel‘s Home Office closing this week wants to update the 1989 act to account for changes in the digital age, especially around data transfer.

Human rights groups and the Law Commission, which drew up the plans, called for a ‘public interest defence’ to prevent journalists with leaked papers being prosecuted.

But the Home Office insisted such a move would ‘undermine our efforts to prevent damaging unauthorised disclosures, which would not be in the public interest’.

Veteran broadcaster John Simpson admitted today that he ‘probably’ would have been prosecuted if this had been law at the beginning of his career in the 1970s.

A consultation by Priti Patel's Home Office closing this week wants to update the 1989 act

A consultation by Priti Patel’s Home Office closing this week wants to update the 1989 act 

Veteran broadcaster John Simpson admitted today that he 'probably' would have been prosecuted if the current proposals had been law at the beginning of his career in the 1970s

Veteran broadcaster John Simpson admitted today that he ‘probably’ would have been prosecuted if the current proposals had been law at the beginning of his career in the 1970s

And Laura Dodsworth, author of Sunday Times bestseller A State of Fear, said today that ‘it shouldn’t only be the Government that decides what is in the public interest’.

She told talkRADIO: ‘This is in a bigger backdrop – we’ve also got the police crackdown bill which looks to avoid noisy and annoying protests.

What has been said about the Official Secrets Act reforms? 

‘This would put British journalists on a par with foreign spies.’

John Simpson, broadcaster

‘It shouldn’t only be the Government that decides what is in the public interest, and that’s what the Government wants’

Laura Dodsworth, author

‘This is how democracies die’

Omid Scobie, royal author 

‘This is how democracies die: slowly and by 1,000 cuts’

Neil Mackay, writer at large at The Herald

‘A free press is essential in a democracy. The government must do all it can to protect it’

Green Party spokesman

‘The proposals as they stand will have a detrimental impact on press freedom.’

National Union of Journalists 

‘An over-arching public interest defence for investigative journalism in British law is long overdue.’ 

Centre for Investigative Journalism 

‘Protests can be noisy and annoying, and that’s part of the point – and they don’t always work, they didn’t stop the Iraq War but we do have gay marriage. So protest is good, and it’s part of being in a democracy – as is a free press. 

‘So the proposed changes to the Official Secrets Act could see journalists being jailed, being treated in the same way as spies, if they disclose leaked documents that are under the Official Secrets Act.

‘Now, the media should be there to hold the Government to account – it shouldn’t only be the Government that decides what is in the public interest, and that’s what the Government wants.’

And Mr Simpson tweeted: ‘Priti Patel’s Home Office wants to make it a crime for journalists to embarrass the govt by publishing leaked official documents. The maximum penalty would be 14 years in prison. This would put British journalists on a par with foreign spies.’

Quoting his tweet, ex-BBC Newswatch presenter Raymond Snoddy added: ‘And the government the equivalent of tinpot dictatorships everywhere.’ 

A Twitter user also asked Mr Simpson: ‘If this had been law at the start of your career, would you have been prosecuted?’ And he replied: ‘Probably.’ 

On a similar theme, Neil Mackay, writer at large at The Herald in Scotland, said: ‘I’d have been jailed under these changes to the Official Secrets Act for my reporting on the work of British intelligence in both Northern Ireland during the Troubles, and in the run up to the Iraq War. This is how democracies die: slowly and by 1,000 cuts.’ 

And Daniel Cuthbert, co-author of the Open Web Application Security Project, a project which works to improve software security, tweeted: ‘This isn’t getting enough exposure as it should.

‘What is being proposed is incredibly dangerous and is a direct attack against the free press. The official secrets act has a place but classifying journalists as spies to stem whistleblowing’

Omid Scobie, royal editor at Harpers Bazaar and friend of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, added: ‘This is how democracies die.’

Critics suggested that if the rules were in place now it could have led to a prosecution of the journalists who revealed last month that Matt Hancock was breaking Covid rules by having an affair with his married aide, because it relied on leaked CCTV footage. 

The revelation prompted his resignation and the end of his marriage. But then the Information Commissioner’s Office faced criticism for searching two homes as part of an investigation into how the material emerged and found its way into The Sun.

And a Green Party spokesman said today: ‘Proposed changes to the Official Secrets Act mean journalists who write articles that are embarrassing to the government could face up to 14 years in jail.

What does the Home Office document say? 

‘Since the passage of the Act in 1989, there have been unprecedented developments in communications technology (including data storage and rapid data transfer tools) which in our view, means that unauthorised disclosures are now capable of causing far more serious damage than would have been possible previously. 

‘As a result, we do not consider that there is necessarily a distinction in severity between espionage and the most serious unauthorised disclosures, in the same way that there was in 1989. 

‘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. 

‘For example, documents made available online can now be accessed and utilised by a wide range of hostile actors simultaneously, whereas espionage will often only be to the benefit of a single state or actor.

‘In severe cases, the unauthorised disclosure of the identities of agents working for the UK intelligence community, for example, could directly lead to imminent and serious threat to life.’

‘A free press is essential in a democracy. The government must do all it can to protect it.’ 

The National Union of Journalists said official secrets laws have been used to threaten journalists and editors to prevent them publishing stories.

It called on the Government to create a public interest defence for journalists.

An NUJ spokesman said: ‘Journalists have often proved to be the most effective champions of accountability, oversight and reform because the media has consistently exposed state misconduct.

‘The NUJ strongly believes that if the Official Secrets Acts are repealed with no public interest defence, it would have a chilling effect on public interest journalism and a consequential and detrimental effect on all UK citizens.

‘The proposals as they stand will have a detrimental impact on press freedom.’

Also among those who have criticised the proposed new laws are the Index on Censorship and the Open Rights Group, who view it as an attack on whistleblowers. 

And a spokesman for the Centre for Investigative Journalism said: ‘The UK Government’s plans to reform the Official Secrets Act, treating journalists like spies, shows that an over-arching public interest defence for investigative journalism in British law is long overdue.’

The plans could increase the maximum two-year sentence for ‘unauthorised disclosure’.

A Home Office document said developments in communications technology, including data storage and transfer, make ‘unauthorised disclosures’ potentially more damaging than in 1989.

It said: ‘As a result, we do not consider that there is necessarily a distinction in severity between espionage and the most serious unauthorised disclosures, in the same way that there was in 1989.’

The document also said: ‘The Government welcomes the recommendation that a maximum sentence of two years does not provide the court with adequate powers in the most serious cases of unauthorised disclosure.’

Critics suggested that if the rules were in place now it could have led to a prosecution of the journalists who revealed this month that Matt Hancock was breaking Covid rules by having an affair with his married aide, because it relied on leaked CCTV footage.

Critics suggested that if the rules were in place now it could have led to a prosecution of the journalists who revealed this month that Matt Hancock was breaking Covid rules by having an affair with his married aide, because it relied on leaked CCTV footage.

It comes just weeks after former Health Secretary Mr Hancock was seen in leaked footage having an affair with his aide, Gina Coladangelo.

Investigators hunting the mole behind the CCTV leak raided homes searching for the culprit who leaked the footage.

The leak sent shudders through Parliament as ministers demanded to know if there were cameras in their offices and whether security staff had access to audio which could reveal sensitive discussions about issues posing a risk of national security. 

A Home Office spokesman said: ‘Freedom of press is an integral part of the UK’s democratic processes and the government is committed to protecting the rights and values that we hold so dear.

‘It is wrong to claim the proposals will put journalists at risk of being treated like spies and they will, rightly, remain free to hold the government to account.

‘We will introduce new legislation so security services and law enforcement agencies can tackle evolving state threats and protect sensitive data.

‘However, this will be balanced to protect press freedom and the ability for whistleblowers to hold organisations to account when there are serious allegations of wrongdoing.’

It comes just days after the UN demanded closer regulation of surveillance tech following extensive revelations of phone hacking targeting journalists, activists and politicians.

Laura Dodsworth, author of Sunday Times bestseller A State of Fear, said that 'it shouldn't only be the Government that decides what is in the public interest'

Laura Dodsworth, author of Sunday Times bestseller A State of Fear, said that ‘it shouldn’t only be the Government that decides what is in the public interest’

They have been spied on using cellphone malware developed by a private Israeli firm, it emerged on Sunday.

The use of the software, called Pegasus and developed by Israel’s NSO group, was exposed in a data leak containing 50,000 phone numbers that belong to people targeted by NSO’s clients since 2016.

Among those clients are some of the world’s most-repressive government regimes, including Hungary, Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

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