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.
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.