The Government, police and the journalistic community need to keep talking about issues such as powers for investigators to obtain production orders for journalists’ materials, according to Home Office Minister Tony McNulty.
His comment came on Monday at a conference on Extremism and the Law organised by human rights group Index on Censorship as he responded to a question from BBC journalist Richard Watson.
Watson asked about the police use of production orders and told McNulty: “It seems to me that the police are adopting an increasingly tough stance on this, and in terms of freedom of speech and civil liberties this is arguably a serious state of affairs.”
McNulty stressed that he was not prepared to discuss specific cases such as that of journalist Shiv Malik, who has appealed against a production order for material and contacts he has gathered in connection with a book he is writing about Hassan Butt, a one-time Jihadist who says he has now renounced terrorism.
He went on: “But I think it is a hugely interesting point that we need to – police, government and the wider journalist community – keep talking about.”
Watson said: “What I’m talking about are fishing expeditions, where production orders are widely drafted.”
McNulty replied: “I’m not necessarily agreeing that any production order is always a fishing exercise.
“But it is something that I accept as an issue and would not dismiss absolutely, and one that we need to keep talking about.”
Later he told delegates: “I think the conversation and discussion of journalism and the law, especially in the area of terrorism, is something that still needs to be talked about and discussed.”
The Counter Terrorism Bill, he said, included broadened powers intended to protect members of the military, police intelligence officers and others.
When the Bill was at its Committee stage, it had been said that these provisions could be seen as being wilfully impeding journalists as they go about their business – but this was not the case.
Such provisions were not intended to be repressive to journalists or others or specific to journalism – police did have a job to do.
Later McNulty said: “I do accept in the broader context, if there is a strength to the courts being dynamic in interpreting, re-interpreting and re-defining the law, which is absolutely their role, that there may be, occasionally, times when the police, their starting interpretation of what they can and cannot do with the law, is perhaps a bit broader than intended.”
Earlier, in his speech, McNulty said he believed the Government was dealing robustly with the terrorist threat without restricting the individual’s right to exercise legitimate freedom of speech.
“If terrorists and violent extremists – with their callous and intransigent disregard for life, the rule of law, women’s rights, pluralism, freedom of speech and freedom of expression – if terrorists represent one end of this spectrum of rights, we represent the other, and we fully intend to stay there, opposing everything that they stand for,” he said.