The Official Secrets Act — when will the British media learn?

I have been watch­ing with a cer­tain cyn­ical interest the unfold­ing of Oper­a­tion Weet­ing, one of the pleth­ora of Met­ro­pol­itan Police invest­ig­a­tions into the UK phone hack­ing scan­dal, involving many of our favour­ite play­ers: shady private invest­ig­at­ors, pred­at­ory journ­al­ists, bent cop­pers, and politi­cians con­tort­ing them­selves in an effort to pro­tect both their own repu­ta­tions and their Friends in High Places.  And the ripples are spread­ing inter­na­tion­ally.  Noth­ing like a little bit of globilisation.…

Rupert_and_Rebekah The Guard­ian news­pa­per has made most of the early run­ning in expos­ing the cor­rupt prac­tices of the now defunct News of the Screws, high­light­ing all the dubi­ous tabloid prac­tices of hack­ing, blagging, pinging, and god knows what else.  All this done with the help of bottom-feeding private invest­ig­at­ors, but also mani­festly with the help of cor­rupt police officers who were not averse to the idea of tak­ing a bribe to help their friends in Wap­ping.  And how far might this “trickle down cor­rup­tion” might have gone, um, up?

Des­pite the self-righteousness of other UK news­pa­pers, it has also now become appar­ent that these dubi­ous and poten­tially illegal prac­tices were com­mon through­out Fleet Street, and other national news­pa­pers are also under investigation.

And yet it appears that all this could have been nipped in the bud over a dec­ade ago, when Steven Nott, a con­cerned Brit­ish cit­izen, tried to expose the vul­ner­ab­il­ity of mobile phones after he stumbled across the prac­tice by acci­dent.  He took his find­ings to a vari­ety of national news­pa­pers, all of whom seem to have ini­tially thought there was a good story, but every time the news was bur­ied.  Well, I sup­pose it would be, wouldn’t it — after all, why would hacks expose a prac­tice that could be so useful?

But back to the dear old OSA and the media.

Police_news_international In yesterday’s Observer news­pa­per, it was repor­ted that the police have threatened the journ­al­ists at The Guard­ian with the Offi­cial Secrets Act (1989) to force them to dis­close the iden­tity of their source amongst the police officer(s) in Oper­a­tion Weet­ing who leaked use­ful inform­a­tion to the news­pa­per to help its expos­ure of illegal prac­tices.  And, rightly, the great and the good are up in arms about this dra­conian use of a par­tic­u­larly invi­di­ous law:

“John Cooper, a lead­ing human rights law­yer and vis­it­ing pro­fessor at Cardiff Uni­ver­sity, echoed Evans’s con­cerns. “In my view this is a mis­use of the 1989 act,” Cooper said. “Fun­da­ment­ally the act was designed to pre­vent espi­on­age. In extreme cases it can be used to pre­vent police officers tip­ping off crim­in­als about police invest­ig­a­tions or from selling their stor­ies. In this instance none of this is sug­ges­ted, and many believe what was done was in the pub­lic interest.

“Cooper added: “The police action is very likely to con­flict with art­icle 10 of the European Con­ven­tion on Human Rights, which pro­tects free­dom of speech.”

But I think he’s miss­ing a bit of recent legal his­tory here.  The UK had the 1911 OSA which was sup­posed to pro­tect the coun­try from espi­on­age and trait­ors, who faced 14 years in prison upon con­vic­tion.  Need­less to say this pro­vi­sion was rarely used — most of the cold war Soviet moles in the estab­lish­ment were allowed to slink off to the USSR, or at the very most be stripped of their “K”.

How­ever, as I’ve writ­ten before, the revised 1989 OSA was much more use­ful for the estab­lish­ment.  It was spe­cific­ally put in place to stop whis­tleblow­ing after the embar­rass­ment of the 1980s Clive Ponting/Belgrano case. 

Ponting The new act was spe­cific­ally designed to strip away the “pub­lic interest” defence used by Pont­ing in his trial, and also to pen­al­ise journ­al­ists who had the temer­ity to report leaks and whis­tleblow­ing from the heart of the estab­lish­ment.  The OSA (1989) has been used extens­ively since the late 1990s, des­pite the fact that many senior fig­ures in the former Labour gov­ern­ment opposed its pro­vi­sions when it went through Par­lia­ment.   Journ­al­ists are just as liable as whis­tleblowers or “leak­ers” under the pro­vi­sions of this act (the infam­ous Sec­tion 5).

So, back to The Guard­ian and its legal cham­pi­ons.  I agree with what they are say­ing: yes, the 1989 OSA  has a chilling effect on free­dom of speech that unduly vic­tim­ises both the whis­tleblower and the journ­al­ist; yes, it is a uniquely dra­conian law for a notional West­ern demo­cracy to have on its books; yes, there should be a defence of “act­ing in the pub­lic interest”; and yes, the OSA should be deemed to be incom­pat­ible with Sec­tion 10(2) of the European Con­ven­tion of Human Rights, guar­an­tee­ing free speech, which can only be cir­cum­scribed in the interests of “national secur­ity”, itself a leg­ally undefined, neb­u­lous, and con­tro­ver­sial phrase under Brit­ish law.

David_Shayler_High_Court But if all the out­raged law­yers read up on their case law, par­tic­u­larly the hear­ings and legal dog­fights in the run up to Regina v Shayler cases, they will see that all these issues have been addressed, appar­ently to the sat­is­fac­tion of the hon­our­able m’luds who preside over Brit­ish courts, and cer­tainly to the estab­lish­ment fig­ures who like to use the OSA as their “get out of jail free” card.

So I wish The Guard­ian journ­al­ists well in this con­front­a­tion.  But I have to say, per­haps they would not have found them­selves in this situ­ation today vis a vis the OSA if, rather than just a few brave journ­al­ists, the media insti­tu­tions them­selves had put up a more robust fight against its pro­vi­sions dur­ing its bas­tard birth in 1989 and its sub­sequent abuse.

It has been repor­ted today that the police may have down­graded their invest­ig­a­tion to a purely crim­inal mat­ter, not the OSA.  Whatever hap­pens does not obvi­ate the need for the media to launch a con­cer­ted cam­paign to call for reform of the invi­di­ous OSA.  Just because one of their own is no longer threatened does not mean the chilling threat of this law has gone away.  As Mar­tin Luther King said while imprisoned in 1963:

“Injustice any­where is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I would also sug­gest the new gen­er­a­tion work­ing in the Brit­ish media urgently read this excel­lent book­let pro­duced by John Wadham of Liberty and Art­icle 19 way back in 2000 Down­load Article_19_Liberty_on_OSA_2000,  to remind them­selves of fun­da­mental argu­ments against dra­conian legis­la­tion such as the OSA and in favour of the free­dom of the press.

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