New UK Secrecy Laws Include Harsh Sentences For Journalists Working With Whistleblowers
Open Rights Group’s Executive Director Jim Killock says PM Theresa May has demonstrated a preference to defend the right to government secrecy over the right to a free press
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore. I’m Kim Brown.
Journalists, whistleblowers, and members of the public face long prison sentences under harsh proposals for a new espionage act in the United Kingdom. Outcry has followed plans in the UK to radically increase prison terms for revealing state secrets from two years, as it currently is, now up to 14 years possible imprisonment. Now, the proposal drafted by the Law Commission also called for criminalizing the mere receipt of classified documentation, regardless of the circumstances. Malicious intent is not a pre-requisite to establish guilt under these proposals, which also appear to apply to actions both inside and outside the United Kingdom.
And joining us today to discuss these proposed changes to Britain’s Secrecy Laws is Jim Killock. Jim is the Executive Director of Open Rights Group. And the Open Rights Group is the U.K.’s only grassroots digital rights organization. He’s joining us today from London.
Jim, we appreciate you being here.
JIM KILLOCK: Thank you.
KIM BROWN: So, Jim, can you start off by explaining the background to these proposed changes? And briefly explain who, precisely, the Law Commission is.
JIM KILLOCK: Yes, so the Law Commission is a sort of review group within government. They are a part of the Justice Department. They’re meant to be independent lawyers who are experts and review the area of the law, an area of enforcing some sort of legal regime, and how law might be improved and changed. The whole idea is to de-politicize very, very contentious issues and to push forward ways to sort out serious legal problems. What’s happened here is they’ve consulted parts of governments — the Justice Department, the Home Office — and came up with very, very strong conclusions that would favor suppression of whistleblowers and stopping state secrets from ever being revealed. Even when the government’s doing bad things. And instead just say “We’ll know if anybody is talking … releasing documents and talking about them, they could get long jail sentences.”
So, this consultation they’ve been preparing for over a year and, you could say, it was in response to Edward Snowden, for instance, and perhaps things like WikiLeaks. They don’t want journalists working with people with big troves of documents. They think it’s risky. They know it reveals a lot about what they’re doing, and they don’t like being caught out.
KIM BROWN: So, explain to us to help put it into perspective and into context, the relationship or at least the legal rights of the British press — trying to expand this out just a bit — do British press have, what we would consider here in the U.S., constitutional protections, when it comes to revealing of sources? And the freedom basically to print things that they are able to substantiate via documentation, regardless of the source?
JIM KILLOCK: Well, things are less clear-cut in the U.K. than in many countries. We do have a right to free expression. That’s how we phrase it in the U.K. And that is guaranteed by the Human Rights Act, which is a bit like a Bill of Rights. And that’s all backed up by us signing the European Convention on Human Rights.
But, to give you an idea of how fragile those rights are compared with the States, Theresa May has publicly said that she wants to get rid of the European Convention on Human Rights. She wants us to leave that European institution and she said she doesn’t like the Human Rights Act because all these things get in the way of government. And they will often cite things like human rights protections, the right to family life and privacy, being used to protect criminals. Or asylum seekers, or making it hard to extradite criminals where you send them back home if you like, where most countries might engage in torture of those people, for instance. And she just doesn’t like that sort of thing getting in the way. She thinks it should all be got rid of.
So here it’s very hard to imagine someone like our Prime Minister really wanting to defend the rights of the press over the rights of government to secrecy.
KIM BROWN: So, what can you tell us about the proposals and the reaction to them thus far?
JIM KILLOCK: I think that the journalists have really realized that this is a threat. So, we had reports in The Times and The Telegraph, which are right of center publications, right of center newspapers, as well as the left-leaning newspapers, complain about this and say that it threatens their journalism. Because government secrecy, even those associated with national security, can be extremely broad. There could be lots and lots of topics. For instance, trade negotiations are part of the economic wellbeing of the country and can be classified as national secrets. And that would mean that all of the negotiations around Brexit and leaving the European Union, those negotiations, perhaps trade negotiations with the U.S.A. — those things could be classified as state secrets and leaks from those negotiations could land people in jail. Obviously, that would be very, very wrong. And it’s going to be something that journalists are going to want to talk about a lot.
So, I’ve got to say they really have reacted very strongly. So much so that the prime minister felt it necessary to say, “This wasn’t my idea, it was the last bloke. It was all David Cameron’s fault as the last prime minister, not mine.” Which is ridiculous, by the way. Because, as Home Secretary, her department would have been very, very closely consulted about what was going to be in this proposal. No way she didn’t know what was going on. But she’s been embarrassed enough to try to pretend that it wasn’t anything to do with her.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. So, what parts of the proposals that most concern you? What are the details that you ‘ve read about this that you find most troubling?
JIM KILLOCK: Well, the idea that you can face a jail sentence for handling documents, for instance. I mean, that would just close down journalism where state secrecy is concerned. That is obviously, obviously wrong. And the lack of any sign of a public interest defense for somebody in the secret services, or handling national documents, national security documents to be able to work with journalists? That is also wrong. The Law Commission seemed to have said even before consultation that it doesn’t think it’s necessary to have those sorts of protections. That, if a whistleblower within the secret services needs to tell somebody in authority to get the word out somethings gone wrong, then they should be able to go to an ombudsman they say he will be able to solve the problem. That’s plainly ridiculous. Ombudsmen would be open to political pressure, it may not be something you trust them over. You may not want to take that route and the public have an interest, they have a right to know ultimately.
It shouldn’t all be something that can be hushed up within the government’s own processes. So, clearly, it’s aimed up stamping out journalism and whistleblowing. And we just have to have a very much more open approach in our view.
KIM BROWN: Jim, how do the U.K. secrecy laws currently function? And are there reforms that you would support?
JIM KILLOCK: Yeah. There are. The secrecy laws, the official Secrets Act, is pretty broadly drafted. You might even accuse it of having some of the same potential for over-reach as these proposals today. The different definitions of what is an official secret, and when handling it is precisely punishable, is not well understood. There are a number of cases are fairly limited around it. And it may well be that custom and practice, and the lack of enthusiasm of public prosecutors to try to prosecute journalists, is what’s protected people in practice rather than the well-drafted laws we’ve had.
But the fact is that no journalist has been prosecuted since the 1970s for any kind of public interest journalism around these sorts of leaks. And people have successfully defended themselves when trying to publish material in the public interest. So, it clearly is an attempt to stop things which are relatively well functioning at the moment. But I wouldn’t say that British law is completely fair and equitable at this point. All governments try to keep too many power to themselves. But, you know, we have a kind of ‘sledgehammer-to-crack-a-nut’ approach in this consultation. And, clearly, there are problems around large volumes of documents being released from time to time.
But I think the approach they’ve got, all that it will do is encourage organizations like WikiLeaks. Because if you’re an anonymous person and you are worried about your leaking being detected, well then give the documents to somebody who’s just going to take them in secrecy, not worry too much, and publish them rather than responsible journalists. The incentives are all wrong in this proposal.
KIM BROWN: Speaking of consultations the Law Commission’s website states that “In making its proposal the Law Commission met extensively and sought the views of government departments, lawyers, human rights NGOs, and the media. However, The Guardian Liberty, which is another open rights group, and the Open Rights Group itself, have all rejected those claims.” So, how do you respond to the claims that an extensive consultation occurred with human rights organizations from the Law Commission?
JIM KILLOCK: Yeah well, they basically rang us up and said, “We’re going to do something and we’d like to chat to you about it in the future.” And that was that. That was last summer. We never heard from them again. And, in fact, when they’re talking to Duncan Campbell, the journalist who broke this story, they pretty much admitted to him that they had just got too busy. It would have all been too difficult, and they haven’t done anything of the sort.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. So, Jim I wanted to ask, what is the next step for this procedurally? How does this work in order for this upgrade, as it were, to the U.K. Secrecy Act? What’s got to happen for this to actually be implemented? And is it likely that it will be implemented?
JIM KILLOCK: I think that we’ll be looking to changes. And don’t forget, in the U.S.A., and Edward Snowden — they’re trying to prosecute him under the Espionage Act. So, I guess this is a little bit of copycat syndrome going on there, you know. If the U.S. has got some laws they can use, then maybe the U.K. should have similar laws, they’re thinking. But I mean, the next step’s simply they’ll consult for a little bit. They will have their responses by the beginning of April. And anybody who is concerned about this, even if you’re in the U.S.A., you can respond and give us some evidence. And then once they’ve processed those they’ll go back to parliament, all the ministers, with some sort of idea about how things should proceed. I think they will want to do something. I’m not convinced that Theresa May is going to kill this dead because of the bad publicity she’s suffered. I think they absolutely want to tighten up on this and they don’t really care if they’re going to come down on journalists. So, they’ll find some way of making it sound less extreme, and they’ll try and push forward with it. That might happen in six months, a year. Or maybe they’ll try in a couple of years when everyone appears to have forgotten about it. We’ll see.
KIM BROWN: Well, we will certainly keep an eye on this and we’ll be in touch with you because I know you’ll be keeping a very close eye on these developments.
We’ve been speaking with Jim Killock. He is the Executive Director of Open Rights Group. It is the U.K.’s only grassroots digital rights organization. And we’ve been discussing the Law Commission in the U.K. proposing changes to secrecy laws in Britain that could criminalize even further the mere handling of so-called classified documents or state secrets.
So, Jim, we appreciate you bringing this very important story to us. Thank you.
JIM KILLOCK: Thank you.
KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.