One of the most precious freedoms for journalists is the protection of their sources. Now it appears the Cabinet Office is using an obscure bill – as part of the government’s drive to cut “red tape”- as cover to erode that freedom.
By changing the rules to allow the police to go to court to obtain reporter’s notebooks, pictures and computer files- without facing an open challenge from newspapers, TV, or even individual freelance journalists themselves – they are placing that protection in serious danger.
No wonder the Newspaper Society is up in arms and media lawyers are raising very serious questions. There is an excellent and elegant argument on the Inforrm blog by Gill Phillips,the Director of Editorial Legal Services at Guardian News and Media, about the dangers.
She rightly concludes: “This appears to be yet another backdoor attempt to limit and restrict essential and hard-fought journalistic protections.”
Bloggers should also be aware of this as it could affect them – and they will be much more vulnerable to a police raid- as they would be in a weak position to defend themselves. It is worth reading Vox Political’s blog on this point and taking action.
The official response according to my former colleague Owen Bowcott in the Guardian has been muted.
He reports :A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “Every measure in the deregulation bill is intended to remove unnecessary bureaucracy. Clause 47 would bring the Police and Criminal Evidence Act into line with other legislation in this area and would allow the criminal procedure rules committee to make procedure rules that are consistent and fair.
” However, the government has noted the concerns raised about this issue and Oliver Letwin is happy to meet with media organisations about this before the bill goes to committee.”
I think the government should go further and drop this now. It can hardly save much money and I think their motives in introducing this are questionable and undo good work under the Defamation act and by the Information Commissioners’ Office to protect journalists from interference by the police and the state.
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I’d love to know exactly where this leaves us bloggers. It’s all so messy. We have a collective blog in the pipeline, and we both write for other blogs, including a foreign political blog. I resent having my freedom of speech impinged on, but the last thing I want is to land in the slammer. (and now I feel a coward too!) Got any thoughts, from somewhere in the depths of your experience?
I may be wrong but I have a feeling the government may well back down on this one. Mainly this is because bigger interests than bloggers such as newspaper editors and the Newspaper Society are likely to put a lot of pressure on them.
If not the answer is to be wary, careful and vigilant about any action you might face. I think the police may not want to get too involved -unless of course the story is exposing their tactics!