Minister: Security law won’t stif le Press
FREEDOM of the Press will not be stifled by a controversial new anti-spying law, the Government vowed yesterday.
A Home Office minister insisted that the National Security Bill is intended only to protect the UK from threats from foreign states and not to interfere with the media.
Lord Sharpe of Epsom said journalists would not be prosecuted for writing articles critical of the Government that might assist hostile states, nor for handling leaked documents. He said that only people who have been given orders or money by foreign intelligence services would be targeted.
And he pointed out that only state threats are covered by the law, not stories that reveal the ‘amorous adventures of Matt Hancock’. His reassurances came after senior politicians, lawyers and media organisations raised fears that the wording of the law – designed to update the Official Secrets Act – could see bona fide journalists jailed for up to 14 years for revealing major scandals and also have a chilling effect by deterring insiders from speaking out.
Addressing the concerns as a series of changes to the draft legislation were raised in the Lords, Lord Sharpe told peers: ‘The Government is committed to defending our freedoms, values that define us and make us who we are, and few are more fundamental to that than freedom of the Press. There is no intention to stifle or censor the media’s ability to expose or shine a light on issues.’
He continued: ‘I want to reassure the media sector that the publication of an article that was critical of the UK Government and which might incidentally be capable of assisting a foreign intelligence service will not fall within the scope of this offence.
‘Nor would the handling of materials in the course of genuine journalistic activities fall within this offence, nor likely the other offences in this Bill.
‘The Government may profoundly disagree with the conclusions of some journalists, but we will not hide behind the criminal law to suppress genuine competing views and it is almost inconceivable that genuine journalism will be caught within the threshold for criminal activity.’
Lord Sharpe said no journalists have been prosecuted under existing espionage or terrorism laws for publishing damaging stories and went on: ‘I wanted to confirm again on the record that the focus of this Bill is on protecting the UK from threats from foreign states and those acting against UK interests, not interfering with a free Press.’
However, he rejected the proposal by some peers that would have carved out a defence for recognised news publishers. ‘Even if hostile state actors did not currently use journalistic cover to engage in espionage, having a defence like this would almost certainly encourage them to do so,’ he warned. That amendment was withdrawn. Lord Sharpe also dismissed an attempt to clarify that journalists would only be prosecuted if they were being paid by a foreign power, saying it could create another loophole to be exploited.
That amendment was not added to the Bill, while a number of attempts to secure public interest defences were voted down.
‘Committed to defending our freedoms’
One of the first rules of politics is to get your story out first, and to go on repeating it often and loudly before anyone has the chance to contradict you.
That is what John Major did in 1995, after he had been challenged for the Tory leadership. His opponent, John Redwood, had done better than expected, winning about a quarter of the votes of Conservative MPs.
But Major’s henchmen raced to every available camera to declare that their man had triumphed and that the uprising was stone-cold dead. The world accepted their version of events because no alternative was offered.
This week, Rishi Sunak has pulled off a similar stunt. Before anyone could read the agreement with the EU, far less digest it, he and his supporters had informed us that some sort of miracle had been achieved.
The Windsor Framework, according to the Prime Minister, heralds a ‘new way forward’ for northern Ireland. Both sides have made a ‘decisive breakthrough’ on the rules governing trade in the province.
Many people — and I include myself — were relieved by the prospect held out by Mr Sunak, and endorsed by european Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, of sunnier relations with our former EU partners.
Mrs von der Leyen said she hoped the agreement would open ‘ a new chapter in our partnership’ with a ‘stronger EU-UK relationship’. Brussels would start the ball rolling on the UK re-joining the EU’s Horizon scientific research programme.
How kind! even gnarled Brexiteers stepped forward to express their joy. That erstwhile Brexit hard man Steve Baker, now a minister in the northern Ireland office, confessed that arguments with Brussels haven’t been good for his mental health.
Well, I don’t want to be a party pooper, but on a closer reading it appears that the deal is far less comprehensive and revolutionary than its supporters claim, and not very much has changed.
It is possible to argue that, in the short term at least, the agreement is good for Britain, since it will remove some of the asperity that has dogged relations with our continental neighbours in recent years.
But I believe it is undoubtedly bad for northern Ireland, or at any rate for the Unionists who live there. Whatever Mr Sunak may claim, the Windsor Framework keeps the province firmly in the economic orbit of the european Union. The european Court of Justice remains the final arbiter in all trade disputes.
In fact, I fear that the inevitable consequence of the deal will be that northern Ireland will be drawn increasingly close to the Republic of Ireland and the EU. It grieves me to say this, but I fear that its bonds with the UK, of which it is now only nominally part, have been loosened, and will eventually be entirely severed.
I don’t, of course, deny that some headway has been made. You’ll be able to take your dog or cat to northern Ireland as long as it is microchipped and you can demonstrate that you have no intention of taking it into the Irish Republic.
British sausages will be piled on northern Irish supermarket shelves, and British seeds and plants will be available in northern Irish garden centres, as Government spin doctors don’t tire of telling us. The flow of medicines ought not to be impeded.
Goods being shipped from Britain to northern Ireland will encounter fewer inspections in a new green lane if they aren’t heading for the Irish Republic. even so, 10 per cent of these goods will be checked, dropping to 5 per cent by 2025, and the EU can apply additional checks if it wants.
That there has been progress it would be foolish to deny. But if you block your ears to the Government’s spin and set aside its 28-page document, turning instead to the EU’s own much more voluminous official publication, you will receive a very different impression from that offered by the wily and ingenious Rishi Sunak.
I should issue a warning that unless you are a lawyer familiar with EU law, and have several weeks at your disposal in which to try to make sense of impenetrable bureaucratic language, you may not enjoy instant enlightenment. I certainly didn’t.
nevertheless, some things are clear. One of them is that, so far as Brussels is concerned, not much has changed. Consider this bald declaration: ‘The envisaged amendment does not amount to a change in the essential elements of the Withdrawal Agreement [by which the UK left the EU].’
Let’s make some comparisons. Mr Sunak has boasted in recent days of the so- called ‘Stormont Brake’, which he claims will enable the northern Ireland Assembly to prevent new EU legislation that it doesn’t like from applying in the province.
not so, says Brussels. The brake can only be used on amendments and updates to existing EU law, not on new legislation. Moreover, the EU envisages the brake being ‘ triggered in the most exceptional circumstances and as a last resort’.
Here’s another difference. Both Mr Sunak and the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, have said that, as a result of the Windsor Framework, the Government will be able to apply VAT or excise changes to the whole of the UK, including northern Ireland.
Apparently not. The UK’s ability to apply reduced VAT rates in northern Ireland is limited to immovable property such as solar panels or wind turbines, and excludes anything that could be sent over the border to the Irish Republic.
And so on. Very little appears to have changed so far as rules on state aid are concerned. The Government will still have to secure the EU’s agreement before dispensing such aid to northern Ireland, supposedly part of the United Kingdom.
This is my question: given that the Windsor Framework represents little more than a beneficial tweak to existing arrangements, why have many Brexiteers welcomed it so enthusiastically? even Boris Johnson has folded his tent.
I believe they are willing to be persuaded by Mr Sunak partly because they rightly think this deal is better than the northern Ireland Protocol negotiated by Mr Johnson and Lord Frost, and partly because, like the rest of us, they want to move on.
Whether the Democratic Unionist Party will be so pliant remains to be seen. They may try to resist, but under pressure from President Joe Biden, the european Union and the UK Government, how long will these obdurate men and women hold out?
What I resent is the impression given by the Prime Minister and his supporters that the narrative of a negotiating triumph can’t be questioned. They act as though they are the grown-ups. They know best.
But do they? The truth is that the Windsor Framework accepts that a part of the United Kingdom will stay under the partial control of the EU. That can’t be honestly denied by anyone who takes a moment to investigate what has been agreed.
I believe that in exchange for better relations with the european Union, and for the quiet life most of us crave, Rishi Sunak has set northern Ireland on a path that will hasten its eventual departure from the UK.
Such an outcome isn’t only a tragedy for the Unionists, who regard themselves as British. It will also be a tragedy for our country.
Sunak has set Northern Ireland on a path that will hasten its departure from the UK