The Terrorism Act - how will it affect journalists?

HOW WILL the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act - likely to have been passed in some form by the time you read this - affect your work as a journalist in the UK? When the Freelance went to press, the House of Lords was doing battle with the government over our civil liberties.

In particular, the Lords had voted down the clause which allowed the police and security services access to 53 kinds of previously confidential information - from medical and tax records to, um, fisheries data - if they were merely thinking about a prosecution for any crime at all, throughout the Universe.

By now we'll know how that panned out. But here are some me warnings about sections of the Act that are very likely to pass unchallenged. Their effect is that it will be even harder to respect the confidentiality of your sources and contacts.

Firstly, assume from now on that a record is being kept of every email address you have sent a message to, or received a message from, and of every website you visit. So it's time to go back to dishing out plain brown envelopes addressed to your auntie to potential whistleblowers who don't want to be traced.

Secondly, if in the course of reporting a story you become aware of any information that might assist in convicting someone of terrorism, you must immediately betray your source to a constable. Otherwise you risk five years' jail. Bear in mind that "terrorism" is defined so widely that bidding opens with threatening to picket a hospital or a waterworks for a political, religious or ideological end.

Thirdly, be careful if you write about the safety of nuclear installations. If you disclose information - for example whether or not nuclear fuel or weapons are stored on your patch - and a court finds that you were "reckless as to whether the disclosure might prejudice" the security of nuclear material, you're banged up, for up to seven years. Do not write about uranium enrichment technology at all.

Mostly, of course, you will suffer the same consequences as anyone else living in or visiting Her Majesty's desmene. If, for example, you're arrested, a police inspector who doesn't like your face may decide that you're lying about your identity - and order you to be stripped to look for identifying marks on the other end.

In general, the Bill extends the notorious Criminal Justistice and Public Order Act 1994, Terrorism Act 2000 and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 - to include measures that the government wanted, but didn't think they could get away with at the time. Then it gives the Secretary of State the power to make any new regulation "necessary or expedient for the general purposes... of this Act" by placing an Order before Parliament. It doesn't even need a vote unless some awkward MP demands one.

Self-immolation appears to be the only form of political protest that's specifically legal, so long as you do it in a well-ventilated or deserted space. The Freelance suspects this is an accident, following the drafters' realisation that they couldn't make it illegal to threaten to administer a noxious substance to yourself, without making it illegal to use tobacco or drain-cleaner.

There are other absurdities, which we wouldn't dream of drawing to Mr Blunkett's attention to just yet. If you know of a good Surrealist lawyer, put them in touch with the Freelance now... Ridicule will be just one part of the long struggle to re-create our civil liberties. One hot afternoon in the middle of a tabloid spy scare in 1911, the first Official Secrets Act was passed. It took eighty years to roll back even a small part of its unwarranted restrictions on reporting how taxpayers' money is spent. This looks likely to be a long haul too.


14 Dec 2001: The Bill is an Act...

...and there are no significant changes to the provisions I warned about above.

The government did at the last minute bow to an amendment intended to narrow the terms of reference for procedures under which Internet Service Providers may be advised or required to retain information on who you exchanged emails with.

§102 Codes and agreements about the retention of communications data

§102(1) The Secretary of State shall issue, and may from time to time revise, a code of practice relating to the retention by communications providers of communications data obtained by or held by them;
...

§102(6) A code of practice or agreement under this section may contain any such provision as appears to the Secretary of State to be necessary -
a) for the purpose of safeguarding national security; or
b) for the purposes of prevention or detection of crime or prosecution of offenders which may relate directly or indirectly to national security

§103 Directions about retention of communications data

§103(1) If, after reviewing the operation of any requirements contained in the code of practice and any agreements under section 102, it appears to the Secretary of State that it is necessary to do so, he may by order made by statutory instrument authorise the giving of directions under this section for purposes prescribed in section 102(6).

Our emphasis on words added by the amendment. If you can work out what, if anything, that lot means, you're a better Law Lord than I am. MH

Last modified: 14 December 2001 - © 2002 contributors
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