John McDonnell MP
The debate so far has been serious, and it has respected the views that have been expressed not only by Members from across the House, on a whole range of issues, but by the families joining us today who have suffered such a sad loss.
I wish to address one detailed element of the Bill, and I do so in my role as secretary of the National Union of Journalists’ cross-party parliamentary group. It is an issue to which we have returned time and again when we have been debating legislation of this sort. I just want to bring it to the attention of the House; I do not intend to divide the House on this matter. I hope that the Government will take up the issue, and then, perhaps, when it goes to the other place, it will be resolved more effectively than it has been in this place. I am happy to offer the NUJ’s services in seeking to provide a way forward on this matter.
Many investigative journalists base their stories on confidential information, disclosed often by whistleblowers. There has always been an historic commitment—in this House as well—to protect journalists’ right to protect their sources. It has been at the core of the journalists’ code of practice, promoted by the NUJ. As Members know, in some instances, journalists have even gone to prison to protect their sources, because they believe that it is a fundamental principle of journalism, and also a fundamental principle of the role of journalism in protecting our democracy.
The growth in the use of digital technology in journalism has raised real challenges in protecting sources. In the case of traditional material, a journalist has possession of it, whereas with digital technology a journalist does not own or control the data in the same way. Whenever legislation of this nature is discussed, there has been a long-standing, cross-party campaign in the House to seek to protect this code of practice of the NUJ and to provide protection for journalists to protect their sources and their information. It goes back as far as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. If Members can remember the operation of that Act, they will know that it requires the police or the investigatory bodies to produce a production order, and requires notice to be given to journalists of any attempt to access information. We then looked at it again in the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. Again, what we secured there were arrangements by which there should be prior approval by a judicial commissioner before an investigatory power can seek communications data likely to compromise a journalists’ sources. There has been a consistent pattern.
To comply with Madam Deputy Speaker’s attempt to constrain the length of our speeches, let me briefly explain to Members what amendment 204 would do. It is a moderate probing amendment, which seeks to ask the Government to look again at this matter. When Ofcom is determining whether to issue a notice to intervene or when it is issuing a notice to that tech platform to monitor user-to-user content, the amendment asks it to consider the level of risk of the specified technology accessing, retaining or disclosing the identity of any confidential journalistic source or confidential journalistic material. The amendment stands in the tradition of the other amendments that have been tabled in this House and that successive Government have agreed to. It puts the onus on Ofcom to consider how to ensure that technologies can be limited to the purpose that was intended. It should not result in massive data harvesting operations, which was referred to earlier, or become a back door way for investigating authorities to obtain journalistic data, or material, without official judicial approval.
… The amendment is in the tradition that this House has followed of passing legislation to protect journalists, their sources and their material. I make this offer again to the Minister: the NUJ is happy to meet and discuss how the matter can be resolved effectively through the tabling of an amendment in the other place or discussions around codes of practice. However, I emphasise to the Minister that, as we have found previously, the stronger protection is through a measure in the Bill itself.