Scotland Yard is at the centre of a furious row over press freedom after warning journalists not to publish any more leaked cables from Britain’s US ambassador Sir Kim Darroch.
Politicians and journalists condemned the “heavy-handed” actions of the Metropolitan Police following the warning that any further release could be a “criminal matter”.
However, the force defended its actions, saying it had a duty to enforce the law in relation to the Official Secrets Act (OSA).
The row erupted after the Met announced on Friday it was launching a criminal investigation into the leak of the cables to The Mail on Sunday which resulted in Sir Kim’s dramatic resignation.
AC Neil Basu: We respect media rights and have no intention of seeking to prevent editors from publishing stories in the public interest. We have received legal advice that has caused us to start a criminal enquiry into the leak https://t.co/LsFGb8Cr4n pic.twitter.com/mvjozPSsog— Metropolitan Police (@metpoliceuk) July 13, 2019
At the same time, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu urged journalists in possession of leaked Government documents to return them, warning any further publication from the dispatches cables could result in prosecution.
Tory leadership contenders Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt were among those to condemn the police approach.
Mr Johnson said that while the cables were “embarrassing”, there were no national security implications.
“It is the duty of media organisations to bring new and interesting facts into
the public domain. That is what they are there for,” he told a Tory leadership hustings in Wyboston, Bedfordshire.
“A prosecution on this basis would amount to an infringement on press freedom and have a chilling effect on public debate.”
Mr Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, said that while police were right to investigate the source of the leak, he supported the right of the press to publish such material.
“These leaks damaged UK/US relations and cost a loyal ambassador his job so the person responsible MUST be held fully to account,” he tweeted.
“But I defend to the hilt the right of the press to publish those leaks if they receive them and judge them to be in the public interest: that is their job.”
These leaks damaged UK/US relations & cost a loyal ambassador his job so the person responsible MUST be held fully to account. But I defend to the hilt the right of the press to publish those leaks if they receive them & judge them to be in the public interest: that is their job— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) July 13, 2019
In a further statement on Saturday, Mr Basu insisted the Met had “no intention” of trying to prevent the publication of stories in the public interest.
He said the focus of the inquiry by the counter terrorism command – which investigates breaches of the OSA – was “clearly on identifying who was responsible for the leak”.
However, he said they had been advised any further publication of the cables “now knowing they may be a breach of the OSA” could also constitute a criminal offence – to which there was no public interest defence.
“We know these documents and potentially others remain in circulation. We have a duty to prevent as well as detect crime, and the previous statement was intended to alert to the risk of breaching the OSA,” he said.
His comments came amid deep anger among journalists at the original police warning.
The Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray said the threat to the media in the police warning was “not acceptable” in a free society.
If I were the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and I wanted to maintain my credibility and the credibility of my force, I would quickly distance myself from this very stupid and ill-advised statement from a junior officer who doesnât appear to understand much about press freedom https://t.co/k9cYzKrcox— George Osborne (@George_Osborne) July 12, 2019
“I cannot think of a worse example of a heavy-handed approach by the police to attempt to curtail the role of the media as a defence against the powerful and those in authority,” he said.
“Frankly, it is the kind of approach we would expect from totalitarian regimes where the media are expected to be little more than a tame arm of the government.”
George Osborne, the editor of the London Evening Standard, condemned the warning as “very stupid and ill-advised”.
The former chancellor said Mr Basu failed to understand the importance of press freedom and urged Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick to disown his statement.
However, former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon said the leak was a clear
breach of the Official Secrets Act, and that the Government and the police were entitled to try to prevent further disclosures.
“If they (journalists) are receiving stolen material they should give it back to their rightful owner,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“I think the Government and the police are fully entitled to find out who was
involved in that and if they can to prevent it happening again.”
Sir Kim announced on Wednesday he was resigning, saying his position had become “impossible” following the leak of his dispatches in which he described Donald Trump’s White House as “inept” and “dysfunctional”.
His comments drew a furious tirade from the president who denounced him as a “very stupid guy” and a “pompous fool”, and said the White House would no longer deal with him.