THE BLOG

Snooper's Charter Step One in Silencing a Free Press

16/03/2016 12:08 GMT | Updated 16/03/2017 09:12 GMT

A government is answerable to its people.

However, on Tuesday evening, steps were taken inside the House of Commons to move away from such a widely-held principle of democracy and promote a situation whereby the people are answerable to their government. By a margin of a whopping 266 votes - 281 for, 15 against - MPs chose to pass the controversial Investigatory Powers Bill.

Dubbed the "snooper's charter", it gives authorities the power to take a look at communications made privately. Web and phone companies must store records of websites visited for 12 months just in case the police, security services or various public bodies want to take a look.

Further, phones and computers can legally be bugged and companies legally must help get past layers of encryption where necessary.

That means you can't send a text message to your husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend telling them that you love them without someone being able to read it if they want to. That means you can't tell your friends that your boss is a tool without someone being able to find that out. That means you can't watch pornography - legal pornography - without someone being able to see what sort of thing gets you going.

Think about this next time you're online and about to partake in a five-knuckle shuffle - it's just like someone sitting and looking over your shoulder. Probably tutting.

Jot that phrase "a government is answerable to its people" down in an email and send it to your address book. Someone in power might get to read it at some point, then.

One of the ways in which a government is scrutinised is through an open and free press. There are no censors that approve a journalist's copy and there is nobody in a position of power acting as a gatekeeper to what the public is and isn't allowed to know.

In the past, journalists have protected sources. Sometimes stories come from sensitive areas and whistle-blowers that need not to have their names known to the authorities.

Yet with the new Investigatory Powers Bill, why does a journalist need to protect a source - when the government or police could just seize all of the reporter's communications and find out who the leak is, without even asking?

While that doesn't restrict the freedom of the press as such, it does make those who would be sources of information to journalists think again about putting stories into the public domain. It can already be a tough task getting somebody aware of corruption or scandals or cover-ups or underhand dealings or immoral practises to go on the record.

Imagine how much more difficult it would be to convince someone they will be protected when they're fully aware there's nothing a reporter can do to stop the authorities from snooping.

The Bill doesn't contain anything that legally requires journalists - or anyone for that matter - to be notified when their communications are being read. The Bill doesn't contain anything that legally allows journalists - or anyone - to appeal the decision to read their communications.

It's dressed up as greater powers for authorities to catch paedophiles and terrorists, but this is a step too far. There is arguably a place for targeted surveillance - taking note of communications of suspicious individuals - but blanket coverage assumes everybody is guilty of doing something unless they can prove otherwise.

Guilty until proven innocent. This Bill suggests you're up to no good unless you can say otherwise.

The people are answerable to their government.

After all, only 15 MPs voted for civil liberties. The Labour Party - the opposition and theoretically one of the two parties most likely to be able to form a government - urged members to abstain from the vote, while the shadow home secretary Andy Burnham said he wouldn't "play politics" by opposing it.

Something's gone wrong when a Bill is so comfortably passed because it's not in any of the members' interests to see it rejected. 281 MPs want to know who's saying what and what you're up to.

And the opposition stood and watched while democracy died a little on the inside.