The current law on espionage is contained within the Official Secrets Acts, dating back to 1911, with the latest update enacted in 1989. The Law Commission — an independent body set up to reform the law — has closed a consultation on ways to improve the law around the protection of official information and is set to report within weeks.
"Classified information is protected because its disclosure might harm national security, or damage international relations. If such information is misused, serious damage can be caused, which is why the unauthorized disclosure of such information is criminalized by the Official Secrets [Acts]," the Law Commission said.
However, civil rights group Liberty has called on the next government to abandon the Law Commission's proposals for an Espionage Act, because they will make it easier to punish journalists — since the government would no longer even have to prove a revelation was damaging.
"The Law Commission's plans would tie our democracy in chains to spare the blushes of the powerful. Under them, revealing any scrap of information that embarrasses the Government could land whistle blowers and journalists in jail. Yet when ministers make strategic leaks for their own political advantage, no one bats an eyelid," said Martha Spurrier, Director of Liberty.
"Locking people up for holding politicians to account is the policy of authoritarian regimes. The next government must abandon these plans and allow brave whistle blowers to expose wrongdoing in the public interest," she said.
Liberty said that allowing prosecutions even if revelations don't damage national security would mean whistle blowers could face charges for leaking anything labelled an official secret. The plans would make it easier to prosecute those who reveal Government wrongdoing, instantly criminalizing public interest journalism and whistle blowing.
"Suppose a journalist received information about the secret services from a whistleblower, but decided not to publish it — perhaps even because they thought it might damage national security? Under the Law Commission's proposals to replace the Official Secrets Acts with a single Espionage Act, both the journalist and whistleblower could be jailed. And if they did publish it, the journalist would no longer be able to rely on a public interest defense," wrote Jim Killock, Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, in Democratic Audit UK.
The Open Rights Group has launched a petition calling on the plans to be dropped.
"Whistleblowers and journalists wouldn't be able to use a public interest defense to protect themselves if they were prosecuted under the proposed Espionage Act. Instead, GCHQ and government staff would have to raise concerns internally. Journalists would have to turn down requests to investigate and report-or risk jail," the petition states.