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Fears have been raised that changes to the UK’s Official Secrets Act proposed by his government could see investigative journalists classed as spies and possibly even jailed.
But the prime minister insisted the review would not “interrupt the normal process” of the media using confidential sources.
Asked on LBC if he had concerns that journalists could face prison terms under the potential reforms, Mr Johnson said: “This is not what we want to do at all.”
The prime minister added: “I don’t want to have a world in which people are prosecuted for … doing what they think is their public duty.”
A Home Office consultation over changes to the Official Secrets Act has suggested that journalists in the UK could be treated in the same way as those leaking information and those committing espionage offences.
It has also considered whether maximum sentences for violation of the act should be increased from two to 14 years.
Mr Johnson suggested any changes to the act would be designed to stop “stuff” that could damage national security. But he denied that the review was aimed at going after confidential sources for public interest investigations.
“You know as well as I do that a lot of the best and most important stories, whether they’re Watergate or thalidomide or whatever, come from … come from tainted sources,” he told LBC host Nick Ferrari.
“Or come from a source that has no business in putting that out into the public domain,” he added, before joking: “One man’s treacherous betrayer of confidences and irresponsible leaker is another man’s whistleblower.”
Mr Johnson said: “Editors and journalists, on the whole, do behave with great responsibility when it comes to stuff that they think should not be put into the public domain because of the damage it could do to national security or to public health or for any other reason.”
He added: “What we want to do is make sure that we don’t do anything to interrupt the operation of good journalism and bringing you new and important facts into the public domain … The search light by the British press will continue to shine on every crevice.”
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has warned that proposed reforms could dilute protections for the media and make it harder to report on national security issues.
The Independent’s columnist Patrick Cockburn has argued that if the Home Office proposals are implemented “then Britain will be well on the way to joining those countries where the disclosure of any information damaging to the government is punishable”.