Mike Dodd: Police are wrong to target the messenger

The arrest of a journalist by police investigating what are described as leaks of sensitive police material is the latest sign of the growing tendency of the authorities to seek to silence the messenger rather than pay attention to the message.

The pattern is familiar – if a message is unpalatable, the messenger becomes the target.

The same approach seemed to apply when the Attorney General obtained an injunction intended to stop the BBC from reporting details of an email concerning a development in the so-called "cash-for-peerages" inquiry. This was done on the somewhat flimsy grounds that the police feared disclosure of the information could forewarn people who might be interviewed.

The completion last week of the trial of a former civil servant and an MP's researcher under the Official Secrets Act, which led to both men being jailed, is another example.

Those journalists who believe these are rare examples, and that by and large we are able to get on with our jobs would do well to think again.

In recent years the Government has displayed an increasingly cavalier approach to press freedom, claiming it supports the principle while at the same time introducing legislation which has been used to stop reporters doing their jobs, and which threatens them with an expanding range of criminal offences.

The new Offender Management Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, poses a direct threat to investigative journalists. It will make it a criminal offence to take photographs or make sound recordings inside a prison, or to transmit them for simultaneous reception outside.

It will also be a criminal offence to take a "restricted" document out of a prison, or to transmit information derived from that document from within a jail.

At the same time, the Home Office is conducting a review of the protection for journalists given in PACE, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.

Its intention is clear – because in Northern Ireland it has already removed those protective provisions for journalistic material, not by amending the Act through Parliament, but by dint of a Statutory Instrument, a legislative device which more often than not escapes proper scrutiny by MPs.

The Fraud Act 2006 also presents a threat to investigative journalists. Someone who gets a job using a false reference as part of an undercover investigation could face prosecution under section 2.

All these examples serve to highlight one thing – that the claim that secrecy aids good governance is often used as a way of protecting politicians, civil servants, the police and others from embarrassing disclosures or the exposure of wrongdoing and political chicanery.

• These are Mike Dodd's personal views

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