Select Committee on Armed Forces Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Newspaper Society

  I am writing on behalf of the Newspaper Society, the association of publishers of the local and regional press, in response to your call for written memoranda from interested parties on the provisions of the Armed Forces Bill. Our concerns are shared by the Society of Editors. The Society of Editors represents the views of members drawn from national and regional newspaper editors and their counterparts in broadcasting and electronic media.

  The media are becoming increasingly concerned about the extent to which statutory and private bodies seek to obtain access to journalistic material, and the concomitant risk of prejudice to confidential sources.

  We note that clause 6 of the Bill provides that the Secretary of State may, by order, enable a service policeman to obtain access to excluded material or special procedure material on "relevant residential premises" for the purposes of an investigation of a section 5 offence.

  Presumably the power would not permit service policemen to obtain access to material held at a journalist's own home or workplace. However, journalistic material which is created by, or in the custody of, service personnel would be caught by the provisions of the Bill. They might also affect war correspondents who accompany UK forces into the theatre of operations. The Regulations for Correspondents contained in Annex A of the Green Book ("Working arrangements with the media in times of emergency, tension, conflict or war") state that accredited correspondents "will be subject to Service Law while accompanying an operational force, and while travelling to and from the operational area in Service transport". Journalists cannot be accredited—and cannot enjoy the resulting privileged status—if they refuse to sign an undertaking to comply with the Regulations. We are uncertain as to whether, during the period that they are accompanying an operation Force, premises used by an accredited correspondent as temporary living accommodation would constitute "relevant residential premises" under the Armed Forces Bill. We would like to see the definition refined in order to exclude such accommodation in those circumstances.

  In any event, it is important that the powers are drawn with clarity, and clause 6 fails this test. The clause is vague, stipulating that on order "may" provide for the safeguards of Schedule 1 of PACE to apply, with "modifications". The explanatory notes do little to assist interpretation, and seem to imply that the Secretary of State will make an order on every occasion that a service policeman wishes to obtain access to excluded or special procedure material! We would wish to see any statutory instrument issued in accordance with clause 6 made subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.

  The residual power in clause 7 enabling a commanding officer to authorise the conducting of a search is worrying, and potentially open to abuse. It is not clear whether this would operate to permit access to journalistic material under clause 6, but if so it would be tantamount to a senior police officer sanctioning access under PACE. As you will appreciate, access to journalistic material (whether confidential or non-confidential) can only be obtained by civilian police on application to a circuit judge. This is the case even where the material contains information which is subject to a statutory obligation of secrecy and is likely to be disclosed in breach of that obligation. Clause 8 provides for review of the commanding officer's action by a judicial officer, but this is retrospective and limited.

  I anticipate that this submission will be circulated to the Select Committee. I will also be raising these points with the Rt Hon Geoffrey Hoon MP, Secretary of State for Defence. Please do not hesitate to contact me if members require any further information about the Newspaper Society, the society of Editors or their concerns.

February 2001

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