The warning from Scotland Yard to the media not to publish leaked government documents shows a truly worrying lack of understanding of how a free press works in a liberal democracy, the Society of Editors said today.
“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,” said the Society’s Executive Director Ian Murray.
His comments were in response to the Metropolitan Police’s Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu’s insistence that publishers and editors hand back any leaked government documents following the publishing of confidential emails from Sir Kim Darroch, the UK Ambassador to the United States, and his subsequent resignation.
“The implied threat is that the media would be acting against the law in publishing leaked documents, even if they were in the public interest. This is simply not acceptable in a free society and will act as a huge deterrent to whistle-blowers,” said Murray.
“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 and should not be the case here in the UK.
“It is ironic indeed that Scotland Yard’s approach comes in the week where the UK has hosted the first Global Conference for Media Freedom. And we should not forget that the UK already languishes at number 33 in the World Index on Press Freedom created by Reporters Without Borders. To be a true beacon to the world on press freedom, the media in the UK should not have to face threats from the police in this way.”
In his announcement that Scotland Yard were launching an investigation into the leaked emails, Mr 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.”
He added: “Following a cross-government investigation led by the Cabinet Office a Gateway Process has occurred today with the Metropolitan Police into the alleged leaking of official communications involving Sir Kim Darroch.
“As a result, the Metropolitan Police Counter Terrorism Command, who take national responsibility for investigating allegations of criminal breaches of the Official Secrets Act, has launched a criminal investigation.
“Given the widely reported consequences of that leak I am satisfied that there has been damage caused to UK international relations, and there would be clear public interest in bringing the person or people responsible to justice.
“The investigation will be reviewed at every stage to ensure a proportionate investigation is undertaken.”