The Deregulation Bill is coming before the UK House of Commons on Monday, and among its many "red-tape-cutting" provisions is one that would allow the courts to grant the police secret hearings in which they could secure orders to seize reporters' notebooks, hard-drives and other confidential material. No one representing the reporters would be allowed to see the evidence in these "closed material procedures."
How the hell did this happen? Sadly, it was absolutely predictable.
When Parliament passed a law permitting secret trials where people who were adverse to the government in court proceedings would not be allowed to see the government's evidence, nor have their lawyers review it, those of us who sounded the alarm were accused of hysterics. The Libdem leadership whipped their MPs on the issue, ordering them to vote for it. Many of us in the Libdem party left over the issue, and the party grandees patronised us on the way out, saying that we didn't understand that the Libdems had put in place "crucial changes," and that somehow, there were changes that could paper over the naked fact of a law permitting secret trials in Britain.
The Libdems' cowardice over secret trials removed any claim they had to being "the party of liberty." Anyone in the party leadership today who expresses surprise at the expansion of the doctrine of secret courts is either an idiot or a bad liar. When future journalists who report on government wrongdoing have their notebooks seized based on secret evidence, the trigger will be pulled by the government of the day — but the gun was loaded by the Libdems in 2013.
The other parties were crucial to the creation of secret courts, but neither Labour nor the Tories have ever claimed to be "the party of liberty." No one mistook Labour — creators of RIPA and architects of the world's most advanced surveillance state — for a party that believed in freedom. Indeed, the Libdems' victories in the last national elections are in large part thanks to widespread disgust with Labour's authoritarianism. And as for Tories, everyone knew that the Nasty Party would happily gut civil liberties faster than you could say "G4S."
The Libdems promised to be a party that would, at last, stand up for freedom. Instead, they sold out out, and we're going to be paying the price for many years to come. There is a world of difference between objecting to the creation of secret courts and the expansion of secret courts. Now that secret courts are a fact of life in the UK, their expansion will always be on the horizon. As soon as "the party of liberty" endorsed the idea that justice could be served when the government could keep secrets from the people who were seeking redress of its wrongs, they set the stage for a mushrooming, toxic doctrine of state secrecy that overrules foundational democratic principles that have been in place since the overthrow of the Star Chamber in 1641.
It is an everlasting shame to the party, and makes me embarrassed to have endorsed them and raised funds for them. Better that they never won a single seat than to have brought us to this pass in British politics in the name of "liberty."
The Newspaper Society, which represents regional media, has written to the Cabinet Office ministers responsible for the bill, Kenneth Clarke and Oliver Letwin, protesting about the changes.
"The deregulation bill's provisions could enable the current statutory safeguards to be removed completely, reduced, weakened or otherwise radically altered at any later time, without prior consultation of the media affected nor detailed parliamentary scrutiny of the effect," the society has warned.
"Reporters are put at risk, whether reporting riots or investigating wrongdoing, if perceived to be ready sources of information for the police."
…Gavin Millar QC, who is representing BSkyB in the police application case, said of the changes combined with the court case: "[They could] allow the police to use closed material proceedings [presenting evidence in secret before a court] in lots of cases. It's very worrying. The media will not be there to argue their case. Greater awareness of the information available in the digital age will [increase the number of applications]. The police have realised that there are vast quantities of information that may be of use to investigations. It's lazy policing basically."
Secret hearings could allow police to seize journalists' notes if bill passes [Owen Bowcott/The Guardian]
(Image: Luminarium Encyclopedia: Star Chamber, The Court of Star Chamber.)