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.

AltVoices Article, June 2007

My art­icle in Alt​Voices​.org, June 2007:

THE OFFICIAL SILENCING ACT

Last month the UK’s dra­coni­an secrecy laws were again used to crim­in­al­ise two hon­our­able whis­tleblowers. The UK’s supine main­stream media failed both to ques­tion the valid­ity of these con­vic­tions and to hold the gov­ern­ment to account.

by Annie Machon

On May 9 Dav­id Keogh, a 50-year-old com­mu­nic­a­tions officer in the Cab­in­et Office, and Leo O’Connor, 44, a research­er for an anti-war Labour MP, were con­victed of breach­ing the Offi­cial Secrets Act (1989).

Keogh’s crime was to have leaked an “extremely sens­it­ive” memo to O’Connor, detail­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about Iraq between Tony Blair and George W. Bush in April 2004.

Keogh passed the doc­u­ment to O’Connor to give to his MP in the hope it would reach the pub­lic domain, expose Bush as a “mad­man”, and lead to ques­tions in Par­lia­ment. The memo was deemed to be so secret that much of the tri­al was held in cam­era.

Keogh was found guilty of two breaches of the OSA, O’Connor of one, and they received sen­tences of six months and three months respect­ively.

This bald sum­mary of the case was all that appeared in the main­stream UK media. No doubt many people will have taken this case at face value. After all, the UK should be able to pro­tect its nation­al secur­ity and impose tough leg­al sanc­tions for treach­ery, shouldn’t it?

Except that this was not treach­ery. Keogh and O’Connor were not passing the UK’s secrets to an enemy power. They acted from con­science to expose pos­sible wrong­do­ing at the highest level.

The media should have use this tri­al to address the ongo­ing debate in the UK about the con­tinu­al use and abuse of the OSA. Unfor­tu­nately for the Brit­ish people, the media toed the offi­cial line and kept quiet.

The UK’s secrecy laws are a very Brit­ish muddle. The first OSA was enacted in 1911 to pro­sec­ute trait­ors. This law remained in place until the 1980s, when the Thatch­er gov­ern­ment was rocked by the alleg­a­tions of civil ser­vant Clive Pont­ing about a cov­er-up over the attack on the Argen­tine ship the Gen­er­al Bel­grano dur­ing the Falk­lands War.

Dur­ing his tri­al, Pont­ing relied on the pub­lic interest defence avail­able under the 1911 Act. He was acquit­ted, and the Con­ser­vat­ive gov­ern­ment imme­di­ately drew up a new law, the 1989 OSA. This new law was designed primar­ily to intim­id­ate and silence whis­tleblowers. Treach­ery is still pro­sec­uted under the 1911 Act.

The 1989 Act, opposed at the time by Tony Blair and most of the cur­rent Labour gov­ern­ment, ensures that any­one who is or has been a mem­ber of the intel­li­gence com­munity faces two years in pris­on if they dis­close inform­a­tion relat­ing to their work without per­mis­sion, regard­less of wheth­er they are blow­ing the whistle on crim­in­al activ­ity.

Since com­ing to power in 1997, Blair’s gov­ern­ment has repeatedly used this Act to sup­press legit­im­ate dis­sent, silence polit­ic­al oppos­i­tion and pro­tect crim­in­als with­in the intel­li­gence estab­lish­ment.

In 1997, MI6 whis­tleblower Richard Tom­lin­son had no option but to plead guilty dur­ing his tri­al, and was sen­tenced to six months in pris­on.

Around the same time MI5 whis­tleblower Dav­id Shayler dis­closed the illeg­al 1995 MI6 plot to assas­sin­ate Col­on­el Gad­dafi of Libya, as well as a string of oth­er crimes com­mit­ted by MI5.

Dur­ing his tri­al Shayler argued that, under Art­icle 10 of the European Con­ven­tion of Human Rights, legis­la­tion such as the OSA is only pro­por­tion­ate in sup­press­ing a whistleblower’s right to speak out in order to pro­tect “nation­al secur­ity”.

How­ever, his judges effect­ively ruled that this right should also be cur­tailed for “nation­al interest” con­sid­er­a­tions. This neb­u­lous concept, undefined for the pur­poses of the OSA, is routinely wheeled out to spare the blushes of politi­cians and incom­pet­ent spy agen­cies.

In 2002 Shayler did win from the courts the defence of “neces­sity”. How­ever, the Law Lords spe­cific­ally denied him this defence without hear­ing his evid­ence. Shayler was con­victed in Novem­ber 2002 of three breaches of the OSA and sen­tenced to six months in pris­on.

In 2003 the late Dr Dav­id Kelly would also have faced an OSA tri­al for his alleged com­ments about the gov­ern­ment “sex­ing up” the notori­ous dodgy dossier before the war in Iraq.

The 1989 OSA does not just apply to those in and around the intel­li­gence com­munity. Oth­er civil ser­vants, as well as journ­al­ists who pub­lish their dis­clos­ures, face the same pris­on sen­tence if the pro­sec­u­tion can prove “dam­age to nation­al secur­ity”. Keogh and O’Connor were con­victed under these pro­vi­sions, although the pro­sec­u­tion reportedly relied only on the “nation­al interest” argu­ment.

The UK gov­ern­ment is increas­ingly con­cerned about secur­ity leaks dur­ing the unend­ing “war on ter­ror”, and is now talk­ing about doub­ling to four years the sen­tence for whis­tleblow­ing.

By fail­ing to chal­lenge this or to cam­paign for the res­tor­a­tion of the pub­lic interest defence, journ­al­ists are com­pli­cit in crim­in­al­ising hon­our­able people. The media’s craven atti­tude allows the gov­ern­ment and intel­li­gence agen­cies to con­tin­ue lit­er­ally to get away with murder.