By Christopher Jones
The outrage stemming from the Law Commission’s decision to update its legislation regarding the punishment of whistleblowers and the journalists who publish the leaked information is understandable. Taken at face value, this decision seems like an infringement against democracy, an apparently Orwellian move by a government hoping to stamp out free speech. But when you consider the state of government transparency throughout the rest of the world, or lack thereof in many cases, the thought of strengthening the protection of state secrets becomes a relevant proposition.
The current state of world politics is a competitive one. If and when confidential information leaks from a particular country, other nations don’t simply ignore it because it’s information intended to be kept secret. If these are particularly damning secrets, they can alter the perception of the country they leaked from for the worse, potentially disrupting cooperative relationships between nations. And this is just between countries with an amicable mood toward each other. When this information reaches countries or terrorist groups intent on undermining the integrity of those who oppose them, it can be used to dangerous effect.
For example, when The New York Times reported on a file leaked to them by whistleblower Edward Snowden, they failed to properly redact parts of the file that related to US intelligence activity against Al-Qaeda. As a result, the terrorist communications that under surveillance were changed, potentially preventing the discovery of valuable information that could have been used against the terrorist group. To think of this new legislature only as it applies to the UK is narrow-minded, since whatever gets published in British newspapers has the potential to circulate the world and cause harm to geopolitical interactions.
In an ideal world, governments could share all their information without fear of it being used against them. You don’t need me to tell you that we don’t, at all, live in an ideal world, but I do feel the need to point out the benefits that would come out of this new legislation when the default reaction is fear.
By Harry Heath
In a political climate where the leader of the free world’s media strategy is to dismiss opposition as ‘fake news’ and a leading British tabloid brands the independent judiciary as ‘enemies of the people’, talk of a crisis in democracy has become ten-a-penny. While resisting the temptation to make fashionable yet lazy comparisons between the conditions in today’s liberal democracies and the Third Reich or Nineteen Eighty-Four, one must persist to highlight the sinister nature of the provisional plans to establish an updated Espionage Act.
This recently proposed legislation, designed to replace the current Official Secrets Act, would mean an increase in the power of the courts in punishing those deemed guilty of leaking or even receiving sensitive information. Journalists who obtain leaked official documents could potentially be imprisoned for as long as fourteen years and the plans also entail a redefining of what by law is considered to be compromising national security, with actions that pose a threat to the nation’s “economic well-being” now included. This is nothing but a cynical attempt to reduce government accountability and the power of the press, justified under the national security umbrella.
A point that has been made is that in theory, the leaking or gathering of official sources regarding negotiations with the European Union could be considered inconsistent with Britain’s economic interests and thus now result in criminal convictions. While the government prefers secrecy, the disclosure of documents are a matter of public concern and it is vital that the free press perform its watchdog role as Mrs May steers HMS Brexit away from the continent. There is an innate conflict between the public interest and the government’s interest in this case – the new proposals dangerously regard the two as interchangeable, they are not. Ignorance is not strength.
In open societies such as Britain, there is no place for the state to threaten journalists and whistleblowers with imprisonment for revealing uncomfortable truths and our Prime Minister should think very carefully before attempting the turn back the tide of increased visibility. If the freedom of the press is accepted as a pillar of democracy, the implementation of such authoritarian legislation would represent a considerable crack in the concrete. With reference to the three traditional Estates of the Realm, Edmund Burke said, “in the reporters’ gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all”. Which part didn’t they get?