Counterterror police chief denies undermining press freedom over Sir Kim Darroch leaks

Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu says he 'regrets the impact' of statement warning of potential prosecution over the diplomatic cables which revealed the ambassador's thoughts on Donald Trump

Lizzie Dearden
Security Correspondent
Tuesday 12 November 2019 20:24 GMT
Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Neil Basu warned the media not to published leaked government documents
Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Neil Basu warned the media not to published leaked government documents (PA)

The head of UK counterterror policing has denied that he undermined press freedom by threatening journalists with prosecution for publishing leaked diplomatic cables criticising Donald Trump.

Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said editors and reporters could be charged under the Official Secrets Act over leaked memos from Sir Kim Darroch, the former UK ambassador to Washington.

Mr Darroch resigned amid widespread news coverage of his remarks calling the Trump White House “dysfunctional”, divided, “clumsy and inept” in July.

Scotland Yard started an investigation aiming to uncover the source of the leak days later, with Mr Basu warning in a statement that “the publication of leaked communications, knowing the damage they have caused or are likely to cause may also be a criminal matter”.

His comments sparked condemnation from MPs including Boris Johnson, press freedom campaigners and editors.

Speaking at the Society of Editors annual conference in London this week, Mr Basu said his “ears were still ringing” from phone calls by “enraged editors”.

“Knowing what I know now, would I have done it all again? Yes,” he added. “Would I have done it differently? Yes.”

Mr Basu said he was obliged to intervene against a “plan to commit a criminal offence” and that the investigation into the leak was ongoing.

“In an election period I am not going to enter into the debate about the reform of the Official Secrets Act, and its lack of a public interest defence," he added.

He said that both press freedom and the rule of law were “cornerstones” of liberal democracy, adding: “I must take the law as I find it. I regret the impact of my statement, not because of its effect on me, but because it risked damaging the relationship between policing and the media.”

Mr Basu risked causing a fresh rift with some sections of the press by suggesting that news coverage of terror attacks could “inadvertently amplify the threat”.

The officer called for outlets not to share livestreams of attacks, like the one posted by the man who allegedly killed 51 people and injured dozens more when he opened fire in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

He also suggested the media should not republish terrorist manifestos or propaganda, or signpost the location of extremist chat rooms.

Comparing the impact of articles on suicides to those on terror attacks, Mr Basu claimed both could “influence vulnerable people”.

He said: “Could a person vulnerable to radicalisation be triggered to act by the content of media reports describing terrorism?”

Boris Johnson opposes prosecution of press over Kim Darroch leak

A report on the potential role of news coverage in inspiring copycat terror attacks is currently being prepared by the Royal United Services Institute think-tank.

Security services downgraded the UK’s terror threat level from severe to substantial earlier this month, but Mr Basu stressed that attacks are still likely.

“I am particularly troubled by the rising nationalist agenda and a growth in what we now clearly see as right wing terrorists,” he said. “Targets are softer, methodology simple and cheap and the perpetrators are either lone actors or more proficient in encryption. The attacks and the planning may be less frequent but they are harder to see and stop.”

Police and MI5 have thwarted 24 terror plots – 16 Islamist and eight far-right – since March 2017, but Mr Basu said many operations amounted to “goal line saves”.

He called for earlier intervention to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism, adding: “We need the whole of society, including the media, to play its part.”

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