Tinker, Tailor, Journo, Spy | Recasting Journalists as a Threat to the State

Tinker, Tailor, Journo, Spy | Recasting Journalists as a Threat to the State

Information leaks have changed and journalists will now have to alter their methods of exposing information if they wish to avoid a prison sentence.

The advent of significant data leaks: the release of large data caches, has brought us some of the most important investigative journalism of the past fifty years. It has been a powerful tool for the press and seems to have hegemonic power structures shaking at the knees.   

Ryanair flights were redirected to steal away reporters at the behest of the Belarussian government, Donald Trump advocated for an expansion of libel laws to sue newspapers, and a Spanish rapper has received a prison sentence for criticisms of their royal family. These events seem to show an intensified aggression from those in power toward the press.  

What’s more, they seem to show insecurity.

The Proposal:

A reform to the Official Secrets Acts was proposed to combat these risks. Called the “legislation to counter state threats,” it aims to modernise the current, archaic legislation that has been mouldering in the basements of the law since 1989.  

While a series of emergent threats surrounding technological advances should be addressed, this is an absurdly authoritarian way of doing it. The proposals include raising the maximum sentence to fourteen years for the leaking of classified information – referred to as “onward disclosure.” Furthermore, despite recommendations from the Law Commission, the Home Office has decided not to include a public interest defense, meaning that acting in the public’s interest will not be enough to avoid prosecution for leakers.

The Home Office argues that technological advances, allowing for entire documents to be uploaded to the internet, have removed “any distinction in severity” between espionage and the most severe leaks.  

This is disastrous. Holding the government accountable for its actions is a vital element of a functioning society. The longer sentences and exclusion of a public interest defense, an exclusion made against recommendations, seems to be a calculated and purposeful attempt to target journalists. The Home Office has made a direct comparison between journalistic practices and espionage; it has attempted to criminalise the mechanisms that have allowed such ground-shaking revelations as the Paradise Papers and the Edward Snowden data to reach the public.

What seems to be emerging from the narrative surrounding this proposal is an attempt by the Home Office to recast the roles in leak journalism. In the document, the Home Office argued that individuals “will rarely (if ever) be able to accurately judge whether the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs the risks against disclosure.” In this statement, the Home Office argues that individuals are not responsible enough to leak this information on their own.

The framing of journalists as irresponsible leakers lays the groundwork for the further demonisation of democratised discourse. 

It is implicitly an argument for the State being the sole arbiter of information. If individuals cannot be trusted to release this information to the public, then who?  

It may seem tempting to dismiss this claim as the product of too many years spent analysing 1984 in A level English Lit, but a look across the avenues by which the Home Office proposes making public-interest leaks says otherwise. In their justification for the exclusion of the defense, they suggest “taking up concerns with their own organisation, with the Cabinet Office, with the Civil Service Commission, and even the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.” Leaving no room for non-government organisations or even individuals to release classified data legally, it monopolises the right of the state to arbitrate the information that reaches the public.

Collateral Damage: Will press freedom make it out unscathed?

This criminalisation of leak journalism has caused great fear for freedom of the press. In a submission to the Home Office, Michelle Stanistreet, the general secretary for the National Union of Journalists, stated:

“This has deep consequences for democracy and makes it easier for the government to block newspapers from revealing stories, such as ministers who break social distancing rules.”

Michelle Stanistreet

This is not an unfounded fear. On the contrary, journalists across the mediasphere have taken a doom-filled view of the new proposal. They have stated it is bound to have a chilling effect on public interest journalism. 

The Guardian points out that implementation of the proposal, in cases such as that of Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning, sentences could apply, as there is no requirement for the parties involved to be in Britain or even British. It is also surmised that the expansion of the Official Secrets Act is not in line with FOIA standards in other democracies. The implementation of these standards would put the UK miles behind the US and other European allies. In itself, this is a fact that should cause concern; however, it also comes when many different avenues of information are being closed down for journalists. 

Previously grantable FOI requests are now being denied, and the Foreign Office blacklisted journalists from accessing government information.  

This fact on its own is troubling. However, it carries even more sinister implications as it means that individual journalists are being discussed and monitored within the halls of government.

This restriction of access to FOI requests has already left little other recourse for investigative journalists other than leaks, and the proposed legislation would shut down even this last-resort measure. Dr. Emma L Briant, a propaganda expert and research associate in human rights, states (about the combination of the legislation to counter state threats and the lessened access to the FOIA) that: 

“The UK has already become an increasingly hostile environment for journalism and whistleblowing disclosures in recent years, the present measures risk democracy itself”

Dr Emma L Briant

These mechanisms of data restriction represent the negative end of a contradiction that exists in every government and power imbalance. It is never in the best interest of any government to allow too much transparency. It is in the hands of the press and the people to provide a counterbalance for this vested interest. The legislation to counter state threats should be seen as what it is. A desperate attempt by an insecure Home Office to avoid scrutiny, a symptom of elected officials quivering at the increased transparency forced upon them by the digital age.

Written by Leo Black | Illustrated by Beth Herbert

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