Met Police under fire after warning journalists not to publish leaked documents

Scotland Yard has come under fire after warning journalists they could face prosecution if they publish any more leaked diplomatic cables from Britain’s ambassador to the US.

Tory leadership contenders Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt both strongly defended the right of the press  to publish leaked government documents, amid anger at the police intervention.

The Metropolitan Police announced on Friday it was launching a criminal investigation into the leak of dispatches from Sir Kim Darroch, which were highly critical of the Trump administration.

At the same time, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu issued a warning to the media that they could face prosecution if there was any further publication of the documents.

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Boris Johnson said a prosecution of journalists could have a ‘chilling effect’ on public debate (Jacob King/PA)

His comments drew a furious response from journalists and some politicians.

Mr Johnson said any such prosecution would amount to an “infringement of press freedom” and would have a “chilling effect” on public debate.

“In my view there is no threat to national security implied by the release of this material. It is embarrassing but it is not a threat to national security,” he said.

“It is the duty of media organisations to bring new and interesting facts into the public domain. That is what they are there for.

“A prosecution on this basis would amount to an infringement on press freedom and have a chilling effect on public debate. That is my view.”

These leaks damaged UK/US relations & cost a loyal ambassador his job so the person responsible MUST be held fully to account. But 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

— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) July 13, 2019

Mr Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, said that while police were right to investigate the source of the leak he backed the right of the press to publish such material.

“These leaks damaged UK/US relations and cost a loyal ambassador his job so the person responsible MUST be held fully to account,” he tweeted.

“But 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.”

In a statement Mr Basu said there was a “clear public interest” in bringing the perpetrator to justice given the damage caused to Britain’s international relations.

“The publication of leaked communications, knowing the damage they have caused or are likely to cause, may also be a criminal matter,” he said.

“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.”

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