UK police warning to media over diplomat's leaked memos stirs anger

By Michael Holden

Senior British politicians, including both contenders to be the next prime minister, joined journalists on Saturday in criticising police for warning media not to publish leaked government documents, saying it was a"dangerous road to tread".

Last week, a Sunday newspaper published leaked memos from Britain's Washington ambassador that provoked a serious diplomatic spat with U.S. President Donald Trump and ultimately led to the envoy announcing his resignation.

Britain's most senior counter-terrorism officer, Neil Basu, said on Friday police would investigate who was responsible but also warned journalists and publishers they too could be in breach of the law if further documents were leaked.

His comments provoked anger and criticism from journalists, editors and politicians who said it risked infringing the freedom of the press.

The Society of Editors described it as a heavy-handed approach that would be expected from totalitarian regimes and George Osborne, editor of the London Evening Standard and a former finance minister, called it a "very stupid and ill-advised statement from a junior officer who doesn't appear to understand much about press freedom".

"The state threatening media freedom is a dangerous road to tread," Health Minister Matt Hancock said on Twitter.

Basu issued a further statement on Saturday, stating that the police respected media rights but reiterating the message that there should be no further publication of the leaked documents and others which he said remained in circulation.

"The focus of the investigation is clearly on identifying who was responsible for the leak," Basu said.

"However, we have also been told the publication of these specific documents, now knowing they may be a breach of the OSA (Official Secrets Act), could also constitute a criminal offence and one that carries no public interest defense."

Both men battling to replace Theresa May as prime minister when she steps down on July 24 because she failed to deliver Britain's exit from the European Union, had earlier said the warning from Basu was wrong.

"It cannot be conceivably right that newspapers or any other media organisation publishing such material should face prosecution," former London Mayor Johnson told an event in central England.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote on Twitter: "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."

Both said the leaker should be found but the press should not be targeted.

The Mail on Sunday newspaper last week published cables from Kim Darroch, Britain's ambassador to the United States, in which he called the Trump administration "inept", prompting the president to label him "very stupid" and "wacky".

The spat has become one of the central issues of the contest for the leadership of the governing Conservative Party and the next prime minister that will be decided by about 160,000 members of the Conservative Party. A diplomatic source told Reuters that the lack of backing from the frontrunner, Boris Johnson, had been a factor in Darroch's decision to resign.

Johnson himself acknowledged his comments had been partly responsible but denied he was to blame.

Not all politicians, though, felt the police were wrong. Security minister Ben Wallace said members of the public were bound by parts of the Official Secrets Act.

"If (journalists) are receiving stolen material they should give it back to their rightful owner and they should also be aware of the huge damage that's already been done and the potentially even greater damage that could be done," former defense minister Michael Fallon told BBC radio.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2019.

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Basu is an idiot. You cannot prosecute a newspaper for publishing a story, you prosecute the ones who gave them the story, if that breaks the law. Who ever gave Darroch's reports to the Mail on Sunday has broken the Official Secrets Act and will get prison time.

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Britain's most senior counter-terrorism officer, Neil Basu... warned journalists and publishers they too could be in breach of the law if further documents were leaked.

George Osborne... called it a "very stupid and ill-advised statement from a junior officer who doesn't appear to understand much about press freedom".

So the most senior counter-terrorism officer in the UK is, according to Osborne, merely a junior officer? Isn't Basu an Assistant Commissioner, ranking third in the Met Police? His seniority makes Basu's comments/threats more ominous, not less - there's nothing to be gained by trying to discredit him by claiming he's a supposedly junior officer who doesn't understand the issues.

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I don't know the legal details of this kind of thing, but the newspaper in question seems somewhat selective in its freedom to publish. It holds two potentially juicy stories, the secret opinions of an ambassador about the US president and the name of someone in government who revealed state secrets. Which is more in the public interest to publish? This is not a normal whistleblower situation where someone is revealing illegal or wrongful behavior. The reveled secret was of a guy doing his job as expected. Is there any need to protect the person who leaked the secret?

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