Having a free and unrestricted media is essential to any healthy liberal democracy, with the UK being no exception. It is required for holding politicians to account, providing vital information to the public and allowing for rigorous public debate and scrutiny of our elected officials. However, recent proposed changes to the Official Secrets Act endanger this tenet of a free society.
Passed in 1911 and updated in 1989, the Act currently makes it a criminal offence for either a current or former government employee to leak any material considered ‘damaging’, covering areas such as intelligence, security and defence.
A recent Home Office consultation of the Act has resulted in numerous proposals to toughen punishments for whistle-blowers and journalists. Among the proposed changes is a new fourteen-year maximum sentence for the publishing of stories considered ’embarrassing’ for the government (and classified information). This would undeniably restrict critical coverage of government decisions and actions, shielding them from necessary scrutiny.
Allegedly for the purpose of increased protection against foreign espionage, these proposals would handily allow the government to avoid addressing unflattering information. The case of Edward Snowden in 2013 is a prime example of a scandal that a government would have preferred to keep quiet. The dangers to journalistic integrity are crystal clear.
For a genuinely free press, we cannot allow the government to dictate what is and is not publishable material simply because they can’t handle criticism of their actions. If the government makes a mistake, the media has an obligation to inform the public of it.
Such restrictions and regulations are the norm in illiberal nations such as Russia and China. Under these totalitarian regimes, opposition figures and anti-government journalists are routinely arrested in the middle of the night and never heard from again. In 2020, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked China as the world’s leading jailer of journalists for the second year in a row, followed by Turkey.
By comparison, the UK and other Western nations have been steadfast defenders of freedom of the press, believing firmly in the principle of tolerating opposing views. Indeed, the Press Freedom Index for 2021 had European democracies occupying the top four spots.
In the past 18 months we’ve seen the implementation of Orwellian restrictions on our freedoms, from national lockdowns to vaccine passports. Having faced no real opposition from Keir Starmer and the Labour Party, Boris Johnson has made moves to consolidate his power and stifle dissenting voices – which seemingly includes journalists. It is clear (and concerning) that Johnson’s claimed identity as a libertarian lacks any real substance.
These proposed changes represent the growing authoritarian and illiberal nature of the Conservative elites who, enjoying their new-found powers during the pandemic, now risk relegating fundamental press freedoms to a bygone era. Johnson may consider us a ‘freedom-loving’ nation, but it is up to those of us who still cherish liberal democracy to fight to preserve it.