The Guardian today reported that the United Nations Committee on Human Rights had issued a damning indictment of the British government’s use of legislation to suppress a right that is fundamental to all functioning democracies: freedom of expression.
This is not news to me. But it’s interesting that freedom of expression is now being curtailed in so many varied, interesting and imaginative ways: libel laws, terrorism laws and official secrecy. That’s quite an arsenal.
Britain is now infamous for being the “libel capital” of the world. Wealthy individuals can use our courts to suppress publication of critical books and articles anywhere in the world, if they can prove that the book has been sold in the UK – even if it’s just one, second-hand copy on Amazon. The magazine, Private Eye, has been commenting on this extensively over the last year.
Then, under the slew of new counter-terrorism legislation that the Labour government has introduced since 2001, it is now an offence to say anything that might “encourage” terrorism. That definition is so broad that, say, you or I made an innocent comment about the Palestinian or Iraqi situation, and this could be misconstrued by another person as encouraging them to violence, this could be assessed subjectively as a criminal offence by the prosecuting authorities. This is third party thought-crime.
These sort of laws have a negative impact on free speech, as publishers, editors and journalists begin to self-censor rather than run informed risks for the public good.
But it’s the third area of law that resonates most with me, for obvious reasons: the 1989 Official Secrets Act, which criminalises any unauthorised disclosure by serving or former intelligence officers, notified persons, and other crown servants and officials. These people are the most likely to witness high crimes and misdemeanors on the part of government, police and the intelligence services, and yet they are the most criminalised in this country for speaking out. Whistleblowers in other areas of work are specifically protected by the law under the Public Interest Disclosure Act (1998).
How did this happen? Ever since the 1911 Official Secrets Act came into force, there has been legislation to protect this nation’s genuine secrets against the actions of traitors. Under this law, crown servants face 14 years in prison if they betray information to hostile powers. Of course we need to protect genuine secrets, and this is certainly safeguard enough.
The change in this law was specifically designed to gag genuine whistleblowers in sensitive areas, not protect national security. This came about in the 1980s after the notorious failed prosecution of Ministry of Defense civil servant, Clive Ponting. In 1984 he blew the whistle on the fact the British government knew that the Argentinian warship, the General Belgrano, was sailing away from the exclusion zone during the Falklands War in 1982. Despite this, the order was still given to attack it, and many were killed. Ponting was rightly outraged by this, and went public. His actions were manifestly in the public interest, and this was precisely the successful defense he ran in court. Furious, the Conservative government of the time re-wrote the secrecy laws, removing the public interest defense to deter such principled whistleblowers in the future. And this is the current Official Secrets Act criticised so strongly by the UN.
Interestingly, at the time the Labour party strongly opposed this change, rightly thinking that this would curtail crucial information reaching the public domain. At this point, of course, many of them correctly suspected that they were on the receiving end of illegal investigations by MI5.
The roll call of Labour MPs who voted against the proposed Act as it passed through Parliament in 1988 includes such luminaries as Tony Blair, Jack Straw and the former Attorney General John Morris. All these people went on to use the 1989 OSA to threaten and prosecute the intelligence whistleblowers of the last decade.
The blanket ban on freedom of expression for intelligence personnel appears to be illegal under the terms of the European Convention of Human Rights. Sure, Article 10(2) does give nations the limited right to curtail freedom of expression in a proportionate way to protect national security. However, the term “national security” has never been defined for legal purposes in this country and is used as a catch-all phrase to prevent disclosure of anything embarrassing to the government and the intelligence agencies. Plus, during these cases, lawyers and judges have consistently confused the notion of the national interest with national security – two very different beasts. And freedom of expression cannot be legally curtailed under the Convention merely for reasons of “the national interest”.
So I was heartened to read the UN’s verdict on this legal mess: “Powers under the Official Secrets Act have been “exercised to frustrate former employees of the crown from bringing into the public domain issues of genuine public interest, and can be exercised to prevent the media from publishing such matters”.”
Let’s hope this leads to the reinstatement of the public interest defence at the very least. During this time of the unending “war on terror”, governments lying to take us into illegal wars, and the use of torture and internment, whistleblowers play an important role in upholding and defending our democratic values. We need to protect them, not prosecute them.