Official Secrets Act: Boris Johnson 'Doesn't Want' Journos Prosecuted for 'Doing Their Public Duty'
© REUTERS / PETER CZIBORRABritain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. File photo
© REUTERS / PETER CZIBORRA
Last week, veteran BBC foreign correspondent John Simpson warned that possible changes pertaining to the Official Secrets Act would put British reporters in the same category as foreign spies.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted that a review into the Official Secrets Act will not damage journalists' interests, pledging that a Home Office consultation on the matter would not be scrapped.
The legislation provides for the protection of state secrets and official information, mainly related to national security.
The original Official Secrets Act was created in 1911 and was reformed in 1920 and 1939. An entirely new version of the document saw the light of day in 1989, and Home Secretary Priti Patel now says the legislation has not kept pace with the digital age and needs to be updated.
© REUTERS / JEFF OVERS/BBCBritain's Home Secretary Priti Patel appears on BBC TV's The Andrew Marr Show in London, Britain May 23, 2021
Britain's Home Secretary Priti Patel appears on BBC TV's The Andrew Marr Show in London, Britain May 23, 2021
© REUTERS / JEFF OVERS/BBC
In an interview with the British radio station LBC on Wednesday, Johnson tried to alleviate fears that the proposed changes to the legislation may lead to a situation where journalists could receive lengthy prison sentences if their stories disappoint the government.
He said he did not want to see reporters prosecuted for doing what is in the public interest, but added that the review into the Official Secrets Act would continue when asked whether the consultation should be "ripped up".
The prime minister stressed that he did not think "for one minute" that the proposed amendments could stop journalists from conducting investigations.
"We don't – I don't – want to have a world in which people are prosecuted for doing what they think is their public duty and […] in the public interest. I'm full of admiration for the way journalists generally conduct themselves. Whatever this thing is, I don't for one minute think it is going to interrupt the normal process", Johnson said.
Priti Patel’s Home Office wants to make it a crime for journalists to embarrass the govt by publishing leaked official documents. The maximum penalty would be 14 years in prison. This would put British journalists on a par with foreign spies.— John Simpson (@JohnSimpsonNews) July 21, 2021
The reform to the legislation stipulates that journalists who publish information based on leaked documents or data that embarrasses the government could be jailed for up to 14 years, something that BBC News world affairs editor John Simpson claimed "would put British journalists on a par with foreign spies".
Wednesday's remarks by Johnson come after his spokesperson signalled the prime minister's commitment to a "free press" following two homes in England being raided by officials from the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), who is investigating the leak of CCTV footage showing former Health Secretary Matt Hancock's affair with a married aide.
The PM's spokesperson told The Telegraph that it was not appropriate at the moment "to comment any further" on the ongoing probe, adding that Johnson has always been a defender of free speech.
"More broadly, the prime minister previously has spoken about his belief of the importance of a free press, which can investigate matters that are in the public interest", the spokesperson said.
Hancock, himself married, resigned after he was caught on camera kissing and embracing Gina Coladangelo, millionaire lobbyist and university pal, who has three children with British businessman Oliver Tress. The images, reportedly snapped by the CCTV camera in Hancock's office on 6 May, were leaked by a whistleblower to the UK tabloid The Sun on 23 June, according to the newspaper's editor Victoria Newton.