The Investigatory Powers Bill, which completed its passage through the Commons this week, remains of acute concern to the national, regional and local press.
The Bill would enshrine the use of sweeping investigatory powers, enabling the shadowing of any journalistic investigation and the exposure of any confidential source.
It lacks robust freedom of expression safeguards. This is contrary to the wider public interest.
It deters concerned citizens, stifles whistle-blowers and undermines investigative journalism.
If a source cannot be confident that their identity will be protected, they may decide the risk of contacting a journalist with important information in the public interest is too great.
This is extremely harmful to the ability of press and public alike to hold powerful institutions and individuals to account.
Along with other media organisations such as the Media Lawyers Association, the News Media Association – the voice of national, regional and local news media – is calling upon the government to introduce practical and robust safeguards which would ensure that journalists are able to protect their sources.
Their concern is shared across the political spectrum of the House of Commons.
In recent days, the Labour, SNP and Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokespeople and the Joint Committee on Human Rights have all called for the Bill’s amendment to improve journalistic protections.
Changes have been proposed, amendments put down, including a succinct amendment tabled by one-time Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael MP, supported by ourselves and other media organisations, disproving Government claims of conceptual, practical or drafting difficulties in providing such protection to journalistic activities and sources.
The Bill must be changed to require prior notice to be given to the media of the authorisation application, a robust set of freedom of expression conditions for the applicant to satisfy and the media’s right to participate in the hearing of an application before an independent judge, with rights of swift appeal, before use of the power is authorised.
These requirements – which would apply to any authorisation of the various investigatory powers set out in the Bill and RIPA in relation to journalistic activities and sources – are grounded in well-established legal principles and statutory procedures.
The government has previously assured us of its determination that checks on the exercise of the Bill’s powers are rigorous, robust, transparent and appropriate. It needs now to deliver these.
We are glad that the Home Secretary recognises that improvement is necessary, but far more radical revisions than that proposed so far are required to provide the necessary safeguards for protection of sources and press freedom. We sincerely hope that the government will respond constructively to the calls for these protections to be embedded into the Bill.
Santha Rasaiah is Legal, policy and regulatory affairs director of the News Media Association