BOMBSHELL raids to find the Matt Hancock whistleblower could have a “chilling effect” on public interest journalism, a minister has warned.
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden wrote to investigators demanding assurances they are not trampling over the rights of the free press.
Mr Hancock quit as Health Secretary after The Sun revealed shocking CCTV footage showing him snogging aide Gina Coladangelo at his government offices — in a breach of lockdown rules.
The Information Commissioner’s Office sparked fury by raiding homes and seizing computers in their search for the whistleblower.
Mr Dowden warned Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham the case raises “important questions” of “freedom of speech”. He wrote: “As I am sure you will agree, free speech and a free press are the cornerstones of our liberties and democracy.
“Legal protections for them will be further strengthened through protections in our Online Safety Bill, including a specific carve out for journalistic content so our press can continue holding power to account unfettered.
“I therefore take the concerns that have been raised about how this ICO investigation could have a chilling effect on public interest journalism very seriously.”
The Cabinet Minister said he “fully respects” the watchdog’s operational powers.
But he warned their quest to discover the leaker and protect data must be balanced by respect for “freedom of speech”.
He added: “I am keen to understand how you will ensure this investigation specifically fully takes into account journalistic exemptions in the Data Protection Act 2018 and how your approach to investigations generally ensure that freedom of speech and expression are properly protected.”
The ICO was slammed for using its little-known powers to launch the Hancock scandal raids, with MPs, free speech campaigners and members of the public calling it overzealous.
Ms Denham denied an attack on the press yesterday. She said: “I’m also passionate about free journalism, the importance of an independent press and I’m also passionate about whistleblowers.
“But whistleblowers and the public interest turns on us establishing the facts in this case. So it’s important that we go in and we look at the facts and only then will we make a determination as to whether this data breach was in the public interest.”
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