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Ex-editor urges fellow Conservatives to oppose Official Secrets Act plans

John McLellan 1A newspaper industry chief and Conservative councillor has hit out at planned new legislation that “could criminalise public interest journalism”.

Scottish Newspaper Society director John McLellan, a Tory member of City of Edinburgh Council, has urged liberal Conservatives to oppose proposed reforms to the Official Secrets Act.

The News Media Association has previously warned the planned changes could expose journalists and whistleblowers to “harsh new penalties such as lengthy prison sentences” and claimed the move “could criminalise public interest journalism”.

John, pictured, has added his voice to those opposing the proposals in a column for The Scotsman, the title he used to edit, describing them as “chilling”.

He wrote: “A consultation led by Home Secretary Priti Patel rejects a public interest defence and seeks to replace the current requirement under the 1989 Official Secrets Act for prosecutors to prove damage had been caused with a new ‘subjective fault’ test if the defendant ‘knew, believed, or was reckless as to whether the disclosure would, was likely to, risked causing, or was capable of causing damage’.

“While the Home Office paper recognises press freedom and whistleblowing as ‘an integral part of the UK’s democratic processes’, the astonishingly illiberal caveat is that a leaker ‘will rarely (if ever) be able to accurately judge whether the public interest in disclosing the information outweighs the risks against disclosure’.

“By this measure it could be argued that revealing damaging information about the Health Secretary in the midst of a health crisis is not in the national interest and, without a public interest defence, the leakers and journalists could easily find themselves behind bars.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted in an interview with LBC last week that the proposals would not “interrupt the normal process” of journalists using confidential sources.

During the interview, LBC presenter Nick Ferrari quizzed the PM whether he was concerned journalists could face prison terms under the potential reforms.

In response, Mr Johnson said: “This is not what we want to do at all.”

He added: “I don’t want to have a world in which people are prosecuted for doing what they think is their public duty.”

In his column, John went on to warn there “will almost certainly be trouble within Conservative ranks” if the Home Secretary’s proposals go through.

He added: “The direction in which Ms Patel wants to go is dangerous and unnecessary and liberal Conservatives like David Davis, Ruth Davidson and, it would appear, Oliver Dowden should unite to change them.”