Journalists should be provided with a public interest defence if they are charged for breaching laws related to data hacking and bribery, Britain’s deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said, after his party recommended changes to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill.
Mr Clegg said that he believed reporters should have more protection from prosecution if they are pursuing public interest investigative stories.
“It’s incredibly important in a free society that journalists should be able to go after information where there’s a clear pub0lic interest to do so, without fear of being snooped upon or having all of their files…rifled through without clear justification,” Mr Clegg said.
In Australia, debates around public interest reporting have been in focus, in the wake of new laws which would put journalists and publishers at risk of prosecution for reporting on special intelligence operations, or publishing news items that may be interpreted as a recruitment tool for foreign fighters.
Media organisations in Australia made a joint submission to both bills, requesting that public interest defences be added but these changes were not recommended by the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and national security.
Mr Clegg is a strong advocate for the inclusion of a public interest defence for British laws that restrict journalists from doing certain activities as part of an investigative reporting project. “You probably need to put it in the Data Protection Act, the Bribery Act, maybe one or two other laws as well, where you enshrine a public interest defence for…the press,” he said.
“So that where you are going after information and you’re being challenged, you can set out a public interest defence to do so.”
His comments follow recent revelations that police used powers granted to them by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), to access private phone logs and other information to discover journalists’ sources. British Ministers are currently reviewing the use of RIPA and Mr Clegg’s party, the Liberal Democrats, is pushing for reforms as part of that review.
The Liberal Democrats introduced to the House of Lords several amendments to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill this week, which would see public interest defences given to journalists charged with offences under the legislation.
The amendments to the bill, which is still under review in the British House of Lords, were not adopted by parliament because they were introduced late in the bill’s progression. However, the amendments could be adopted in further legislation, and remain Liberal Democrat policy.
Justice Minister Lord Faulks said that while he agreed journalists should be able to undertake investigative work to uncover misconduct, the amendments raised more complex issues that required examination.
“I am sure that the majority of journalists work with the utmost integrity but there is a risk that such defences could encourage a culture of wrongdoing, however well intentioned they may be,” he said.
“Of course, the defences would also have a much wider application—for example, giving any potential defendant the right to show that they had a reasonable belief that what they were doing was not illegal.”
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