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23 February 2017

NMA Condemns Cabinet Office Moves to Strengthen Government Control Over Information

Lord Black of Brentwood, chairman of the News Media Association’s legal policy and regulatory affairs committee, has written to the Cabinet Office to express the industry’s deep concern over recent concerted moves to restrict the public right to know.

In a letter to Ben Gummer, Minister for the Cabinet Office, Lord Black cited the review of the Freedom of the Information Act last year and the Law Commission’s project on protection of official data as examples of moves to strengthen Government control over information.

“Press freedom, freedom of information and freedom of expression are core concerns of the NMA and its members,” Lord Black wrote.  “We have been surprised and deeply concerned by Cabinet Office reviews aimed at strengthening the government’s control over information and restricting the public’s right to know.

“First the Independent Commission on review of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, now the Law Commission ‘s project on Protection of Official Data, charging the Law Commission to consider how to strengthen the criminal law’s controls and sanctions for unauthorised obtaining and disclosure of government information.

"This is hugely threatening to publishers, journalists and their sources Its wide-ranging terms of reference, encompass everything from the official secrets acts 1911-1989 to data protection, to scores of miscellaneous statutes. The Law Commission also subsumed its review of the offence of misconduct in public office into the project at a late stage."

In a separate letter Professor David Ormerod QC, Law Commissioner for England and Wales, NMA LPRA director Santha Rasaiah said the Law Commission’s proposals would have “deeply disturbing consequences for press freedom.”

“Under the Law Commission’s proposals there would be no limits on who could be accused of certain wrongdoing, official secrets offences would be broadened, protected information widened, requirements that disclosure be damaging dropped, territorial ambit and citizenship rendered irrelevant and draconian indiscriminate prison sentences imposed. A public interest defence is rejected.

“The proposed prior publication defence could not be relied upon, even if all the world was already aware of the material disclosed and its disclosure had done no harm. Further jeopardy to media organisations, journalists and their sources could arise from its combination with investigation, prosecution and enforcement power.

“The Government has stated that it will never be its policy to restrict the freedom of investigative journalism or public service whistleblowing. The NMA and its members would therefore find it helpful to discuss with you their specific concerns on the proposals’ implications for publishers, their journalists, sources and the public’s ability to know.”

The NMA is seeking a meeting with the Law Commission.