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Met Police responds to criticism in wake of warning media not to publish leaked memos

“Do you have any comprehension of a free society? This isn’t Russia,” the Sunday Times editor said in response.

British ambassador to the US Kim Darroch.
British ambassador to the US Kim Darroch.
Image: Sait Serkan Gurbuz

Updated Jul 13th 2019, 3:40 PM

THE MET POLICE has responded to criticism for warning the media not to publish leaked official documents after the incident involving British ambassador to the US Sir Kim Darroch, which led to a diplomatic row and Darroch’s resignation.

“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,” said Neil Basu, a Met Police Assistant Commissioner. 

“We are however a body charged with enforcing the law, and we have received legal advice that has caused us to start a criminal enquiry into the leak of these specific documents as a potential breach of the Official Secrets Act (OSA),” he added.

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.

Yesterday, the Metropolitan Police launched an investigation into the alleged leaking of official communications from Kim Darroch, which led to a tit-for-tat dispute between the US President Donald Trump, and British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Darroch described Trump as “inept” and the White House as “uniquely dysfunctional” in leaked correspondence; Trump responded by tweeting out that Darroch was a “very stupid guy”. 

May sounded her support for Darroch amidst pressure from Trump to replace the ambassador. Jeremy Hunt signaled that if he became Prime Minister, Darroch would stay in situ, while Boris Johnson refrained from articulating the same support.

Johnson did say that the advice of civil servants “should not be leaked or commented on by ministers” if civil servants are to feel confident in carrying out their duties, adding that “whoever leaked that deserves to be eviscerated”.

Darroch resigned from the role in the middle of the row. He was due to retire in December.

Previous statement

A statement from Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said that 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 into the leak.

“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.
“I would say to the person or people who did this, the impact of what you have done is obvious. However, you are now also responsible for diverting busy detectives from undertaking their core mission. You can stop this now. Turn yourself in at the earliest opportunity, explain yourself and face the consequences.”
He then continued:

“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.

The political editor of the Sun Tom Newton Dunn called it an “extraordinary statement”. The Mail on Sunday was the paper that originally published the memos.

Extraordinary statement from Counter Terrorism Command tonight. The Darroch leaker should give himself up or the Mail on Sunday/⁦Isabel Oakeshott⁩ should shop him, and if they publish more leaks, they too may be committing a criminal offence. 

Evening Standard editor George Osborne, meanwhile, described Basu’s statement as “stupid” and “ill-advised”.

 If I were the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and I wanted to maintain my credibility and the credibility of my force, I would quickly distance myself from this very stupid and ill-advised statement from a junior officer who doesn’t appear to understand much about press freedom

Deborah Haynes, foreign affairs editor at Sky News, called the statement ”sinister, hypocritical and ironic all at once”. 

The editor of the Sunday Times, Tim Shipman said:

So Met Police, did the commissioner clear your sinister, absurd, anti-democratic statement this evening threatening journalists with arrest for printing government leaks? Do you have any comprehension of a free society? This isn’t Russia.

US managing editor of the Financial Times Peter Spiegel said: “Well, this is rather chilling from a major police force in a western democracy. What are you going to do, Met Police, arrest us?”

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