Scotland Yard has defended its warning to journalists not to publish more leaked cables from Britain’s US ambassador Sir Kim Darroch.
Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu insisted the Metropolitan Police had “no intention” of trying to prevent the publication of stories in the public interest.
But in a statement, he said the force had opened a criminal investigation into a potential breach of the Official Secrets Act (OSA).
In those circumstances, he said, they had been advised that publication of the documents could constitute a criminal offence with no public interest defence.
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
He said: “The Metropolitan Police respect the rights of the media and has no intention of seeking to prevent editors from publishing stories in the public interest in a liberal democracy. The media hold an important role in scrutinising the actions of the state.
“We are, however, a body charged with enforcing the law, and we have received legal advice that has caused us to start a criminal inquiry into the leak of these specific documents as a potential breach of the Official Secrets Act.
“The focus of the investigation is clearly on identifying who was responsible for the leak.
“However, we have also been told the publication of these specific documents, now knowing they may be a breach of the OSA, could also constitute a criminal offence and one that carries 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.”
The statement followed an angry backlash from journalists and politicians after the force warned further publication of the documents could be a criminal matter.
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. That is my view.”
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 & 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
“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
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.
“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
doesn’t appear to understand much about press freedom,” he tweeted.
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 doesn’t appear to understand much about press freedom https://t.co/k9cYzKrcox— George Osborne (@George_Osborne) July 12, 2019
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.
“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. This is not nor should not be the case here in the UK.”
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.
“They should also be aware of the huge damage that has already been done and the potentially even greater damage to be done by further breaches of the
Official Secrets Act. That is the law of the land.
“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.
- Press Association