The National Union of Journalists has claimed a “great victory” for press freedom over changes being made to the Digital Economy Bill that it hopes will safeguard whistleblowers and public interest journalism.
Under the proposed legislation, which seeks to strengthen the UK’s digital economy with support and added protections for the general public, journalists and whistleblowers could have faced criminal sentences for the unsanctioned leaking and handling of private company records.
The issue was raised by Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland and chair of the NUJ’s Parliamentary Group, while the Bill was passing through the House of Commons amid concerns it would “essentially gag journalists and set a very dangerous precedent”, the union said.
Matt Hancock, the minister responsible for digital and culture policy, said the bill had not been intended as a means to gag the press and confirmed changes would include a defence for journalism in the public interest.
He said: “The Government does not want to curtail freedom of speech or the legal rights of whistleblowers to make protected disclosures.
“To put this matter beyond doubt we will table amendments at Lords Committee stage in order to ensure that our policy is fully reflected.”
Goodman said: “Whistleblowers and journalists need to be protected from the new restrictions on the distribution of certain information that are introduced in the Bill.”
She added: “This is a great victory for freedom of the press and of speech, both of which are vital for democracy. I will continue to monitor the bill to ensure that these measures are as robust as promised.”
NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said the Digital Economy Bill “appeared to be yet another assault of journalists’ rights and press freedom”.
She said the NUJ welcomed changes to the Bill, but added: “We still have some concerns and will be working with Helen Goodman and other members of the Parliamentary Group to ensure the amendments will fully protect our members.”
Meanwhile, the Law Commission has proposed replacing the Official Secrets Act with new legislation which could see journalists jailed for publishing leaked government informatation which harmed the UK’s economy.