The Home Office wants to reform Official Secrets law by pretending journalism does not exist

Over at the Guardian there is an important article – which is also worth reading just for its byline

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A rare sighting in the wild of Duncans Campbell

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The article in turn refers to this government consultation document.

The document is interesting (and worrying) in many ways – but one significant feature is how it shows the state has realised that the old state secrecy model in unsustainable in the new technological and media context.

The concern primarily used to be about what could be done by means of espionage.

And this generally made sense, as the means of publication and broadcast were in the hands of the few.

Now the bigger threat is mass-publication to the world.

This is a particularly striking passage (which I have broken into paragraphs):

“…we do not consider that there is necessarily a distinction in severity between espionage and the most serious unauthorised disclosures, in the same way that there was in 1989.

“Although there are differences in the mechanics of and motivations behind espionage and unauthorised disclosure offences, there are cases where an unauthorised disclosure may be as or more serious, in terms of intent and/or damage.

“For example, documents made available online can now be accessed and utilised by a wide range of hostile actors simultaneously, whereas espionage will often only be to the benefit of a single state or actor.”

Unauthorised disclosure is, of course, at the heart of investigative journalism – indeed some define news as being what other people do not want to hear.

And there is already an offence in respect of unauthorised disclosure by third parties.

But that offence was enacted in the happy halcyon days of 1989 – the year incidentally that the WWW was conceived.

A time where the technological extent of unauthorised disclosure was Spycatcher being published as hard copy books in Australia.

So to a certain extent, the consultation paper is not new: the state still wants to control and prohibit what unauthorised third parties can disclose to the world.

What has changed, however, is the scale of potential disclosures – and that also has changed the priority of dealing with such onward disclosure.

But, as the Duncans Campbell aver, this reorientation of the law of official secrets needs to accord with the public interest in accountability and transparency.

In the consultation paper, ‘journalism’ is not mentioned – and ‘journalist’ is mentioned in passing twice.

The role of the media – and the rights and protections of those who publish information to the world – should instead be integral in any sensible regime of official secrets.

Else we will have the spectacle of the 2020s equivalent of the misconceived and illiberal (and preposterous and futile) Spycatcher injunctions of the 1980s.

Not having proper regard to the public interest in transparency and accountability in the making of any public policy – and especially in respect of national security and official secrets – means you have to deal with these foreseeable concerns later.

Journalism does not go away, just because you do not mention it and pretend it is not there.

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From 1984 to Miss Minutes: the surveillance state is watching you, and there is little or nothing at law you can do about it

19th July 2021

One of the many pities about Nineteen Eighty-Four being too familiar a book is that one can overlook the care with the author of the story constructs the world of an intrusive surveillance state.

The author, a former police officer, does this briskly and subtly.

First he takes the central character through a hallway where a poster has face that is – metaphorically – ‘watching you’.

Then you are told:

‘In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the police patrol, snooping into people’s windows.’

So you are being watched – not metaphorically – from the outside.

And when the character enters his flat:

‘The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard.’

You are also thereby being watched – and again not metaphorically – from the inside.

We are still fewer than 700 words into the novel, but the author has already depicted the claustrophobic predicament of living in a surveillance state.

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Today’s Guardian has set out in a number of articles the extent to which such a surveillance regime is now translated from a literary text into social and policy reality.

None of this is surprising.

And none of this is new: the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four easily imagined such things in the 1940s.

What has not changed is the want of those with political control to have such power.

All that has changed is that those with political power now have access to the technology that enables them to have that power.

But perhaps unlike the state in Nineteen Eighty-Four, those with power do not proclaim from posters – in hallways or otherwise – that we are being watched.

And instead of it being on a big screen on your wall, you willingly and casually carry the means of this intrusion around with you.

Indeed, you are probably looking at that very device this very moment.

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From a constitutional and legal perspective, the obvious issues are the extent to which – if at all – there is any accountability for the use of these powers and the extent to which – if at all – there is any regard for human rights and civil liberties.

And as this blog has previously averred, there is very little accountability and transparency for those with political power even for things which are in the open and without the daggerful cloak of ‘national security’.

Indeed, even cabinet ministers have realised recently that they are under surveillance in their own offices with no control over that surveillance and the uses to which it will be put.

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The one welcome, fairly recent development is that this surveillance state is now (nominally) on a lawful basis.

Each power and exercise of power by the state has to be within the law.

But.

Two things.

First: such is the lack of real accountability and transparency, it makes no difference to the surveillance state whether it is within the law or not.

Even when there is something that is known-about and contestable, the deference of our judges when ‘national security’ is asserted is considerable.

Our judges may not use gavels – that is a myth – but they may as well use rubber-stamps.

And second: public law, well, only covers directly the actions and inactions of public bodies.

But as today’s Guardian revelations show, the software and technology comes from the private sector and there is little or nothing that can effectively regulate what private entities can do with the same means of surveillance.

Public law bites – to the extent that there are teeth attached to a jaw capable of biting – only once the technology and data are in the hands of public bodies.

It is a depressing situation – and not one which can be easily addressed, if at all.

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This blog has been criticised that it does not provide solutions to the problems that it describes and discusses.

But sometimes predicaments do not have ‘solutions’.

It is a tidy human habit of mind to conceptualise matters of concern as ‘problems’ – for that often implies there must be solutions.

Once you say a thing is a problem you usually are half-way to suggesting that there must be some solution.

But the predicament of those with power having greater and greater control by means of technology may not have any natural limit.

Each update and upgrade just making it easer for those with public and private power to intrude and invade.

Imagine reboots, stamping out your data – forever.

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The Crown and the Media – from phone hacking to the Dyson report

22nd May 2021

If anyone doubted the often indirect power of the crown in the public affairs of the United Kingdom then this week’s media news about the Dyson report is a useful reminder.

A reporter fabricated documents so as to engineer an introduction to a member of the royal family and then lied about it.

This sort of ‘blagging’ – as  some of those in the media would call it – was one of what was once euphemistically described as the ‘dark arts’.

And as a result of the exposure of this dishonesty, the future of the BBC (itself founded by royal charter) is now uncertain.

To throw the future of the United Kingdom’s state broadcaster into doubt requires a significant intervention.

It is an example of how the presence of a royal element to a story can electrify things.

And it is not the first time.

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The phone hacking scandal – which affected the press in a way that the Dyson report may affect the BBC – also came about because it had a significant royal element.

In short: the telephones of the royal household were hacked – just as the telephones of celebrities and newsworthy non-celebrities were hacked.

(Hacking was another of those ‘dark arts’.)

But because the target was the royal household, a different part of the metropolitan police became involved instead of those parts of the metropolitan police that the press then had a close (and mutually advantageous) relationship.

This in turn led to a police raid of a private investigator’s office, and the documents then seized in turn were a media-legal time-bomb which exploded when disclosed about the time of the Millie Dowler murder trial.

The story is set out in this thread by James Doleman, who reported on the trials (and with whom, I must add, I disagree on other issues):

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Had the mobile telephones of the royal household not been hacked then it is plausible that – even now – we would not know anything about the real extent of telephone hacking.

Such is the indirect power of the crown in our public affairs.

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Why the first paragraph of the lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems against Rudolph Giuliani is a splendid piece of legal drafting

26th January 2021

You would need a heart of stone not to laugh like a drain at the lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems against Rudolph Giuilani.

The pleading is worth reading for its own sake, and the first paragraph – which, as this post will show, rewards re-reading – is a cracker.

But once one eventually stops laughing, what should one make of it?

Of course, the defendant Rudolph Giuilani is now regarded by many as a figure of political fun, a villain in the Trump pantomime.

But principle is – or should be – blind to the person to whom it applies.

So here is a thought experiment.

Imagine – for the sake of argument and exposition – that there was a corporation that provided voting machines and, unlike the plaintiff in this case, there was a serious and consequential issue as to the efficacy of the equipment.

And imagine that the political or media figure bringing loud attention to this issue was not the defendant in this situation but instead a credible and likeable politician or journalist.

Would you still clap and cheer if that noble figure was faced with a 107-page legal claim for $651,735,000 or some other absurdly precise amount?

Or would you re-tweet furiously about threats by corporates to whistleblowing and freedom of expression?

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So how can the court tell the good cases from the bad?

How can the court strike the right balance?

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This thread from American lawyer Mike Dunford sets out the legal challenges for Dominion Voting Systems:

And as would be the position with a similar case in England and Wales, you will see that the legal issue quickly becomes one of showing malice – and there it is called ‘actual malice’:

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At this point the non-lawyer will ask, understandably: what is malice?

And a lawyer will respond, frustratingly: it all depends.

But here it is interesting to now go back to the first paragraph of the the legal pleading of Dominion Voting System (and this is why it is worth re-reading):

“During a court hearing contesting the results of the 2020 election in Pennsylvania, Rudy Giuliani admitted that the Trump Campaign “doesn’t plead fraud” and that “this is not a fraud case.” Although he was unwilling to make false election fraud claims about Dominion and its voting machines in a court of law because he knew those allegations are false, he and his allies manufactured and disseminated the “Big Lie,” which foreseeably went viral and deceived millions of people into believing that Dominion had stolen their votes and fixed the election. Giuliani reportedly demanded $20,000 per day for that Big Lie. But he also cashed in by hosting a podcast where he exploited election falsehoods to market gold coins, supplements, cigars, and protection from “cyberthieves.” Even after the United States Capitol had been stormed by rioters who had been deceived by Giuliani and his allies, Giuliani shirked responsibility for the consequences of his words and repeated the Big Lie again.”

This is not just racy narrative – if you look carefully you will see that it is a clever attempt to show malice.

Giuliani said a thing he knew he could not say in court; he knew it would go viral; he had a financial incentive; and he was irresponsible in respect of its consequences.

Every sentence – every clause – of that well-crafted first paragraph is serving a purpose in showing that there was ‘actual malice’.

It is a lovely piece of legal drafting – enough to make one want to clap and cheer, regardless of the identity of the defendant.

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Corporations – especially those providing public services or supplying equipment for use in public services – should not have it easy when it comes to making legal threats.

Even when they are threatening pantomime villains.

Public figures, especially those in the worlds of politics and media, should have some protection when they are complaining of such corporations.

Even when those figures are pantomime villains.

The purpose of the law in these situations is to strike a balance – to provide for what both sides would need to show in court.

Here the corporation – rightly – cannot just sue because of damaging false statements, it may also need to show that there was malice.

And the lesson of the first paragraph of the pleading and of the rest of the complaint is that in certain circumstances this can be shown, at least arguably.

What comes of this case cannot be guessed at this time – and most civil claims tend to settle.

But Giuliani has a genuine legal fight on his hands here.

And you would need a heart of stone not to laugh like a drain.

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