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Five years ago, Scotland Yard was forced to close down its attempt to make journalists reveal their sources after its failed effort to find out who told them the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler had been hacked. The Metropolitan Police had argued that Guardian journalist Amelia Hill could have incited the source to break the Official Secrets Act and that she’d probably broken the law herself. Once the threat had been robustly and successfully challenged, a senior police source told the Guardian: ‘It’s off the agenda.’
Official secrets are now back on the agenda, however. In February, the Law Commission announced a short consultation on proposals to change the existing legal framework. It has highlighted that the 1911 Official Secrets Act remains in force and claims its consultation provides a ‘unique opportunity’ to review laws that have not been subjected to ‘rigorous independent scrutiny for over a century’.
The consultation proposes to replace a range of legislation with a single Espionage Act that could extend the remit of the legislation and increase the associated prison sentences from a maximum of two years to 14. The new proposals offer no public interest defence for whistleblowers or journalists.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has been campaigning against the secret state over the last few years, so it is possible to compare the recent changes to the laws on investigatory powers and the proposals regarding official secrets. As with the Law Commission proposals, the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 provides no effective safeguards for whistleblowers or journalists. In both instances there seems to be very little regard for the impact on press freedom.
The new law relating to investigatory powers – described as ‘extreme surveillance’ by campaigners – enables the authorities to access or hack phones or computers in secret. The state can access electronic devices, documents, diaries, contact books, photographs, messaging chat logs and location records. Microphones and webcams can also be turned on and the law compels commercial companies to log information about everyone’s web browsing history. This data is stored for a year. A total of 48 official bodies can access these ‘internet connection records’, including government departments, the police, NHS, DWP and immigration service.
The Law Commission consultation echoes the same pattern by proposing to extend the new Official Secrets law
to cover more areas of public life, including revenue and taxes.
When trade unionists and political activists have tried to find out more information about known incidents of unlawful surveillance by undercover police officers, attempts have been blocked on the grounds of ‘national security’. This has also happened when campaigners have tried to access information about corporate blacklisting of trade unionists.
The latest moves have been legitimised by the authorities on the basis that the law needs to be updated for the digital age. In practice, these measures will deter and criminalise journalists for doing their job and they will persecute and punish whistleblowers and other sources of information that is in the public interest.
Downing Street has attempted to distance itself from the Law Commission consultation. But the latest proposals are alarmingly similar to the thrust of the Investigatory Powers Act, which was spearheaded by the prime minister, Theresa May, during her time in charge of the Home Office.
Marienna Pope-Weidemann explains why decades of occupation and oppression have lead some people to call Israel an apartheid state.
International Women's Day is set to be marked by strikes from "paid work in offices and factories, or unpaid domestic work in homes, communities and bedrooms."
Laurie Laybourn-Langton writes that measuring the economy is political - and economic measurement dominates politics.
David Scott argues that our prison system represents a human rights disaster, and reformist solutions can't tackle the root problems.
A deeper engagement with culture can strengthen our democracy, taking political projects beyond electoral impact and festival memes into a whole new world of radical, lasting change.
Ruth Tanner writes that revelations about Oxfam's behaviour in Haiti are shocking, but not surprising.
The actions of Oxfam officials are horrendous - but gutting foreign aid funding just puts more people at risk, writes Daniel Gibson.
Dr Laura Basu explains that the media allowed politicians to re-write history, erasing the true causes of the economic crisis.
Outsourced cleaners are on the front lines of the battle for workers' rights. By Emiliano Mellino
Power to our beloved comrade and friend, Mehmet Aksoy, a hero of Kurdistan and the internationalist struggles against capitalism, colonialism and fascism. This tribute was authored by Mehmet’s family and friends.
For All, By All
The latest issue of Red Pepper asks - how do we invite, support and nurture greater public participation so that our cultural capabilities are empowered beyond the crushing logic of market fundamentalism?
‘We are hungry in three languages’: The forgotten promise of the Bosnian Spring
Ruth Tanner looks back at a wave of protests which swept through Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2014.
It’s time for a cultural renewal of the left
Andrew Dolan writes that we need to integrate art, music, films and poetry into our movement, creating spaces where political ideas are given further room to breathe.
Jeremy Hunt is poised to flog the last of the NHS
Peter Roderick sounds the alarm on an 'attack on the fundamental principles of the NHS'.
Viva Siva, 1923-2018
A. Sivanandan, who died this week, was a hugely important figure in the politics of race and class. As part of our tributes, Red Pepper is republishing this 2009 profile of him by Arun Kundnani
Sivanandan: When memory forgets a giant
Daniel Renwick calls for the whole movement to discover and remember the vital work of A. Sivanandan, who died this week
A master-work of graphic satire
American Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley’s comic commentary on America, the US Jewish diaspora and Israel is nothing if not near the knuckle, Richard Kuper writes