By Michael Jarvis
A huge debate has been triggered in the UK over a warning to the media by the Metropolitan Police over its investigation into the leak of the contents of a diplomatic memo.
In the first of two statements within the space of 24 hours, the Met had emphatically cautioned the media of the legal risks involved.
Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said: “The publication of leaked communications, knowing the damage they have caused or are likely to cause may also be a criminal matter.
That set off a storm of reaction with many from the press and across the political spectrum questioning its tone and implications and asking if the UK was descending into a ‘police state’.
At issue is the leak and subsequent publication of a confidential memo by the now-former British ambassador to the United States, Sir Kim Darroch.
In it he described the Trump administration in less than flattering terms; in part calling it ‘inept’ and ‘dysfunctional’.
The leak set off a series of reactions and events culminating in Sir Kim resigning the post.
In the midst of the storm was a Twitter tirade by US President Donald Trump in which he not only lashed out at Sir Kim calling him ‘pompous’, but also withdrawing an invitation to an official function at the White House and refusing any further contact with him.
In the same breath, President Trump had severely criticised outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May, describing her handling of the Brexit negotiations as ‘foolish’ and welcoming the upcoming change of leadership in the UK.
Serious questions have been raised about how the contents of the leaked document have - or potentially could - impact the ‘special relationship’ between the two close allies (the UK and the US).
It was then announced that a police investigation would be undertaken into the source of the leak.
But the original statement by the police itself set off alarm bells over its emphatic tone and implications.
“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.”
That was met with a crescendo of objections by leading media and political figures - including the two candidates vying to replace Theresa May as prime minister.
A major concern was the implied threat to press freedom.
But by Saturday afternoon, the police released what was seen as a more tempered statement in which it insisted that it had no intention of curtailing press freedom but was more concerned about the actual source of the leak.
“The Metropolitan Police respects 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.”
However, the Met has stressed that it will continue to pursue the source of the leak.
“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). 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.”
While somewhat more conciliatory, it still has not quelled the discussion.
The debate continues unabated with strong views from both sides of the spectrum with editorial independence, discretion, the public’s interest and the right to publish on the one hand, balanced against what constitutes state security and the national interest.
It’s a necessary and important discussion to have, especially in the era of the social media information-sharing and publishing revolution which many countries - and social media platforms - are still struggling to come to terms with.