Terrorism Act used against Journalist

A wor­ry­ing art­icle in today’s Guard­i­an by the indefatig­able Duncan Camp­bell, in which he reports that police are using the Ter­ror­ism Act (2000) to try to force a journ­al­ist to hand over inform­a­tion from a source.

This issue is the scared cow of journ­al­ism – that they nev­er reveal their sources. To do so would imme­di­ately deter whis­tleblowers from speak­ing in con­fid­ence to the media, and gov­ern­ment crimes and lies would remain secret. The pro­tec­tion of journ­al­ist­ic sources con­trib­utes to safe­guard­ing our demo­cracy, as legis­la­tion such as the Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act (2000) is effect­ively tooth­less when up against the inner work­ings of the state.

Because of this, journ­al­ists with integ­rity in this coun­try and abroad are will­ing to risk pris­on rather than hand over their notes. As Camp­bell remarks, this happened to Mar­tin Bright in 2000 when he was Home Affairs Edit­or at The Observ­er. The Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch went crash­ing into the offices on Far­ring­don Road, demand­ing that he hand over all his notes on the Shayler case. More bizar­rely, they also deman­ded a let­ter Shayler had sent to The Guard­i­an, even though it had already been pub­lished in the news­pa­per. Thank­fully for Mar­tin, the Nation­al Uni­on of Journ­al­ists sup­por­ted him, and the police even­tu­ally backed off.

The fact that the police are using the Ter­ror­ism Act as is a wor­ry­ing new devel­op­ment. But it’s not just pro­duc­tion orders from the police that journ­al­ists and news­pa­pers have to be wor­ried about. The author­it­ies have a range of weapons in their arsen­al if they choose to sup­press inform­a­tion eman­at­ing from inner gov­ern­ment circles or the intel­li­gence world. And yet it is with­in these very circles that the most hein­ous crimes and viol­a­tions are com­mit­ted, and whence the most sig­ni­fic­ant whis­tleblowers tend to emerge. Think Dr Dav­id Kelly, Dav­id Shayler, Kath­er­ine Gun.

So, what else can the author­it­ies use to sup­press val­id cri­ti­cism? Well, firstly and most notori­ously, we have the Offi­cial Secrets Act in the UK. This does not just pre­vent intel­li­gence officers and noti­fied gov­ern­ment offi­cials from ever speak­ing to any­one out­side the agency about any­thing, ever (Sec­tion 1(1)). Slightly less well known is Sec­tion 5, which makes it a crime for any journ­al­ist to receive or eli­cit inform­a­tion from these whis­tleblowers that dam­ages “nation­al secur­ity” (the term to this day remains undefined). Of course, as we saw in the Shayler case, the gov­ern­ment is always extremely reluct­ant to cross the media and enforce this, so it is usu­ally just the unfor­tu­nate whis­tleblower who is hung out to dry.

If the threat of the OSA fails, the gov­ern­ment can always find a tame judge to issue an emer­gency injunc­tion. Again, this happened in the Shayler case, when an injunc­tion was taken out both against him and the UK’s nation­al media. Need­less to say, the injunc­tion against the media was dropped (even this gov­ern­ment quailed at the pro­spect of tak­ing on News Inter­na­tion­al and the Mail group), but remains in place to this day against the hap­less whistleblower.

This injunc­tion is no small thing. The government’s law­yers have used it to fright­en off pub­lish­ers from even look­ing at a nov­el (that’s right – a work of fic­tion) that Shayler wrote in 1998. Let­ters winged their way from gov­ern­ment law­yers to UK pub­lish­ers in Lon­don in 1999. And when Shayler built a web­site, hos­ted by Tab­net in Cali­for­nia, the gov­ern­ment wrote to them point­ing out that there was an injunc­tion in place and ask­ing for the site to be taken down. Tab­net gently poin­ted out that per­haps the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment had for­got­ten about 1776, and con­tin­ued to host the site.

If the OSA and injunc­tions are not enough, we also have the notori­ous D Notice Com­mit­tee (now rebranded as the Defence Press and Broad­cast­ing Advis­ory Com­mit­tee), a body that can block pub­lic­a­tion of a story by issu­ing a notice at the say-so of the gov­ern­ment. Very appro­pri­ate in a so-called demo­cracy. What makes it worse is that the Com­mit­tee is made up of volun­teers from amongst the great and the good from the media world, as well as rep­res­ent­at­ives from gov­ern­ment depart­ments. These guys, seni­or edit­ors and TV exec­ut­ives, enter the charmed inner circle and start to police their own industry. It’s amaz­ing how quickly new appointees go nat­ive and fight the government’s corner.

So there you have it – a whole bat­tery of laws to pro­tect the Brit­ish Estab­lish­ment from the scru­tiny and con­struct­ive cri­ti­cism of the media. When a journ­al­ist of integ­rity stands up to the author­it­ies, we should all sup­port them. They are provid­ing a cru­cial ser­vice of vent­il­a­tion and account­ab­il­ity for our retreat­ing demo­cracy. I wish Shiv Malik, the freel­an­cer at the eye of the cur­rent storm, the very best.


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