Journalists could face prison sentences of up to 14 years for stories that embarrass the Government under plans to reform the Official Secrets Act.
Under a consultation run by Priti Patel‘s Home Office, which closes later this week, reporters who handle leaked documents would not have a defence if charged under new laws designed to clamp down on foreign agents.
The 1989 act is being updated to take into account the impact of the internet age, especially in the area of speedy data transfer.
Human rights organisations and the Law Commission, which drew up the proposals, say there should be a ‘public interest defence’ included to prevent the prosecution of journalists who receive leaked documents.
But in a paper released for the consultation, the Home Office said such a move would ‘undermine our efforts to prevent damaging unauthorised disclosures, which would not be in the public interest’.
Critics suggested that if the rules were in place now it could have led to a prosecution of the journalists who revealed this month that Matt Hancock was breaking Covid rules by having an affair with his married aide, because it relied on leaked CCTV footage.
The revelation prompted his resignation and the end of his marriage. But last week the Information Commissioner’s Office faced criticism for searching two homes as part of an investigation into how the material emerged and found its way onto the Sun’s front page.