The proposals are disproportionate, oppressive, and deeply harmful to democracy and the public’s right to know, says James Slack.
The deputy editor-in-chief of The Sun and former No 10 spokesperson James Slack has spoken out against the proposed overhaul of the Official Secrets Act, calling it ‘draconian’, ‘chilling’, and ‘profoundly damaging’.
In May, the Home Office, led by Priti Patel, published a consultation paper with proposals for toughening the Official Secrets Act. Under the new proposals, journalists and whistleblowers could face up several years of jail time for revealing sensitive information, even if it was in the public interest.
Slack, who joined The Sun earlier this year after serving as the Downing Street Director of Communications between January and March, criticised the proposed changes in an interview with journalism.co.uk.
He said: “Every journalist I have spoken with at The Sun and elsewhere is appalled that the government is even considering doing something so draconian, and which could have such a profoundly damaging impact on the public’s right to know.
“The lack of public interest defence would have a chilling effect on the media’s ability to report wrongdoing, hypocrisy, and criminal negligence.”
He added: “The Prime Minister said that he does not “for one minute” want to handicap the ability of a free press to expose the hypocrisy of Matt Hancock and other scandals. In which case he needs to step in and insist that, if whistleblowers and journalists can prove that the disclosure of confidential information was carried out in the public interest, a prosecution would fail.”
Slack also expressed concern over how the changes would affect whistleblowers, saying it would be far less likely that they would come forward.
He said: “Whistleblowers are vital in exposing what the government does not want you to find out. If they are silenced by the threat of a long jail term, with no public interest defence to protect them, then it is no exaggeration to say lives will ultimately be lost. You only have to look to the NHS scandals which have been exposed by brave public servants to know this is true.”
When asked what the potential implications were of this proposal on public interest journalism and the freedom of expression, Slack said: “Chilling. The proposals are disproportionate, oppressive, and deeply harmful to democracy and the public’s right to know.”
Other individual journalists and media organisations have spoken out against the proposals and a petition demanding the government do not turn the changes into law.
In LFF last week, journalist Paul Lashmar expressed his concerns with the effects of the overhaul of the Act.
He wrote: “For journalists to accept the new proposals would be a huge leap of faith that the government would use such legislation proportionally and sensibly.
“The new legislation would tip the delicate contract between personal freedom and national security towards a more authoritarian stance with a decided chilling effect on journalistic inquiry.
“There has never been a more important time for rigorous fourth-estate monitoring of the intelligence complex, and many of the proposals in this consultation would be a further deterrent to robust investigative journalism.”
Alexandra Warren is a freelance journalist.
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