The newspapers are full of lofty editorials about the Official Secrets Act review treating journalists like spies and criminalising public interest reporting. The Home Office is reportedly determined to deny a public interest or whistleblower defence to a breach of the Official Secrets Act. This would mean that a lot of the stories you see on the front pages of newspapers could result in criminal prosecutions for the journalists who publish them. This, unsurprisingly, has led to universal opprobrium in the media.
When quizzed about this by Nick Ferrari this morning (see video excerpt above), Boris said “I don’t want to have a world in which people are prosecuted for doing what they think is their public duty”. Pushed to clarify the government’s intentions, he added:
“What we want to do is make sure that we don’t do anything to interrupt the operation of good journalism and bringing new and important facts into the public domain …
I do not for one minute believe [the Official Secrets Act review] is going to do anything to interrupt the normal process by which … the search light of the British press will continue to shine on every crevice of [life]… I think, actually, editors and journalists, on the whole, do behave with great responsibility when it comes to stuff that they think should not be put into the public domain because of the damage it could do to national security or to public health or for any other reason.”
Boris also defended the right of journalists to obtain information from what he described as “tainted sources” saying:
“A lot of the best and most important stories, whether they’re Watergate or Thalidomide or whatever, come from tainted sources, let me put it like that. Or come from a source that has no business in putting that out into the public domain … One man’s treacherous betrayer of confidences and irresponsible leaker is another man’s whistleblower.”
Priti Patel’s consultation document categorically opposes the introduction of a public interest defence, where a person should not be guilty of an offence under the Official Secrets Act if that person proves, on the balance of probabilities, that: (a) it was in the public interest for the information disclosed to be known by the recipient; and (b) the manner of the disclosure was in the public interest. Boris seems to think there should be a public interest defence.
In the light of the Prime Minister’s comments Guido has asked multiple Home Office sources what the government’s line now is. At the time of going to pixel, no response has been received.