02:15, February 19 410 0 theguardian.com

2017-02-19 02:15:11
Peter Preston on press and broadcasting  
 Beware, whistleblowers: officials still love secrets more than freedom

It seems an odd, indeed ludicrous, moment to talk official secrecy when Trump and co are engaged in full-blown hostilities with the CIA, FBI and homeland security amid a tsunami of leaks. But Britain, head down, cloaks and daggers fully mustered, ploughs on regardless as the Law Commission moves to “update” the Official Secrets Act. Just count the reasons for scepticism and apprehension, though.

One is the history, pre-1989 update, of that act itself: a history so grotesquely unfair that a sympathetic jury, raising two fingers to a judge’s summing-up, freed Clive Ponting for exposing how the Belgrano was really sunk – a public interest defence that always has Whitehall hopping with anxiety.

Another is the uniquely British tendency to see “modernisation” as a reason to extend sentences, from two years to as many as 14. (These cells are a bit crowded, aren’t they, governor?)

Yet another is the determinedly foggy nature of the commission’s putative extension of guilt from the leaker to the receiver of secrets: one seemingly destined to scare off journalists (and their lawyers)as well as deter whistleblowers.

And then there’s the soothing song from No 10. “It is not, it never has been and never will be policy of the government to restrict freedom of investigative journalism or public whistleblowing. One of the points of the [Official Secrets Act] review was to consider whether more safeguards are required to protect public sector whistleblowers and journalists …” This from a government that reacts so feebly when another less spook-flecked act of parliament, Ripa, sees unrepentant police chiefs using hacking of their own to pursue officers who talk to reporters. This when sources are at obvious risk.

Which leaves one more grey, grisly area for alarm. The Law Commission hasn’t been working on a blank canvas here. To the contrary, it’s clearly had current events in mind – events such as the whistleblowing of Edward Snowden (and the Guardian’s role in that shattering tale). So we have attempts to spread the net of British law wider, to foreign nationals. So we have official fingering of editors’ collars, a broadening of threatened retribution beyond the destruction of computers in newspaper basements.

Is there any sign here, as there was from the Obama administration, that Snowden had performed a public service by exposing official illegality and mission creep? Of course not. And, for those who like to join up bits of variegated thinking, there’s good reason to share the Guardian and Observer’s own refusal to join any royal charter regulator, the supposed freedom it offers bulwarked by two-thirds majorities in the Commons and Lords.

For we know what happens when parliament gets bitten by some security bug. Then government and opposition unite in denunciation. Then newspapers themselves divide and bite each other. Then normal restraint goes out of the window in a spasm of emotion. Then the bulwarks of freedom disintegrate and drift slowly down the Thames. At least they have their knife-fights in the open along the Potomac.