Scotland Yard risked turning the UK into a “police state”, MPs claimed, after a senior officer said it may be a “criminal matter” for the media to disclose information contained in official communications.
It came after the Met’s counterterrorism command launched an investigation into the leak of diplomatic memos in which Britain’s ambassador to the US criticised president Donald Trump’s administration.
In a statement announcing the probe, assistant commissioner Neil Basu said: “The publication of leaked communications, knowing the damage they have caused or are likely to cause may also be a criminal matter.
“I would advise all owners, editors and publishers of social and mainstream media not to publish leaked government documents that may already be in their possession, or which may be offered to them, and to turn them over to the police or give them back to their rightful owner, Her Majesty’s Government.”
Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat former health secretary, told The Independent Mr Basu’s remarks were “intolerable”.
He added: “It strikes at the heart of of the principle of a free press. We undermine this principle at our peril. It is central to our liberal democracy and must be defended. We do not live in a police state.”
Both Conservative leadership contenders came out in defence of the media's right to publish leaked information.
Speaking at a hustings in Bedfordshire, Boris Johnson said: “I think that a prosecution on this basis would amount to an infringement of press freedom and have a chilling effect on public debate.”
Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt called for the person behind the diplomatic leak to “be held fully to account”, but he added: “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.”
George Osborne, editor of the Evening Standard, described Mr Basu’s comments as “very stupid and ill-advised” and said the officer “doesn’t appear to understand much about press freedom”.
He warned there would be “calls for resignations” unless Met commissioner Cressida Dick made it clear journalists would not face prosecution.
Tim Shipman, political editor of The Sunday Times, condemned Scotland Yard’s “sinister, absurd, anti-democratic statement”. He tweeted the force: “Do you have any comprehension of a free society? This isn’t Russia.”
Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis replied that Mr Shipman was “spot on”, adding: “A free press is vital for our country and our democracy. It challenges and enlightens us … Sad this point has to be made at all.”
Other MPs who voiced dismay included John Whittingdale, the former culture secretary, who said: “The idea of prosecuting journalists is completely wrong.
“I am horrified these communications were made public. But there is no point shooting the messenger.”
Press freedom campaigners also condemned Mr Basu’s warning to the media. Rachael Jolley, deputy chief executive of Index on Censorship, told The Independent: “Scotland Yard’s warning to journalists about publishing leaked documents shows how the police profoundly misunderstand press freedom. Publishing leaked information in the public interest is a vital part of democracy.”
Chris Daw QC, a criminal barrister and legal commentator, also expressed concern. He said: “Investigate the leakers by all means. I understand the need to enforce the Official Secrets Act against those in sensitive roles.
“But I think AC Basu has gone a step too far in issuing a general warning/threat of prosecution to journalists.”
However, former defence secretary Michael Fallon insisted it was “logical” for Scotland Yard to warn the press about publishing leaked government information.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday morning, he said: “We have press freedom, we prize press freedom in this country, but equally we also have laws, we the Official Secrets Act, and it’s very, very important that that law is upheld.”
Mr Fallon suggested the Mail on Sunday may have broken the law by publishing excerpts of ambassador Sir Kim Darroch’s diplomatic telegrams.
The Official Secrets Act prohibits public servants from making “damaging” disclosures of classified material. It is aimed at civil servants and other government workers who have access to sensitive information.
But security minister Ben Wallace said members of the public were also bound by parts of the legislation, which has no public interest defence.
The leak of the Sir Kim’s cables, in which he described Mr Trump’s White House as as “inept” and “dysfunctional”, sparked a transatlantic row.
The ambassador resigned this week after the president denounced him as a “very stupid guy” and a “pompous fool” and declared his administration would no longer deal with him.
Mr Basu said the leak had damaged the UK’s international relations and “there would be clear public interest in bringing the person or people responsible to justice”.
In the Commons on Thursday, Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan told MPs an internal Whitehall inquiry had found no evidence the leak was the result of computer hacking.
Instead the focus was on finding “someone within the system who has released illicitly these communications,” he said.
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