In an abrupt turnaround, the Metropolitan police have dropped their attempt to order the Guardian to reveal confidential sources for stories relating to the phone-hacking scandal. They’d hoped to force reporters to reveal confidential sources for articles disclosing information about the murdered teenager, Milly Dowler, whose phone was hacked on behalf of the News of the World.
The British press is regulated by something called the Official Secrets Act, which in layman’s terms, is pretty similar to our proposed Secrecy Bill. One has to be careful with what one says as a journalist.
The Met’s application for the exposure of the sources had been made under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and alleged that a journalist for the paper, Amelia Hill, committed an offence under the Official Secrets Act by inciting an officer from Operation Weeting (the Met’s investigative unit looking into phone hacking) to reveal information.
Layers and media representatives alike had expressed their distaste at the fact the Met had resorted to threatening journalists with the Official Secrets Act, and their surprise was reinforced yesterday when the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, revealed that the Crown Prosecution Service had not been contacted by officers before the application was made.
The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Alan Rusbridger, was relieved:
We greatly welcome the Met’s decision to withdraw this ill-judged order. Threatening reporters with the Official Secrets Act was a sinister new device to get round the protection of journalists’ confidential sources.
We would have fought this assault on public interest journalism all the way. We’re happy that good sense has prevailed.
Scotland Yard is obviously not impressed with the turnaround, but has to deal with it:
There will be some hard reflection. This was a decision made in good faith, but with no appreciation for the wider consequences. Obviously, the last thing we want to do is to get into a big fight with the media.
We do not want to interfere with journalists. In hindsight the view is that certain things that should have been done were not done, and that is regrettable.
Neil O’May, one of the Guardian’s solicitors explained:
This was always a misconceived application for source material. Journalists’ sources are protected in law.
For the Metropolitan police to turn on the very newspaper which exposed the failings of the previous police inquiries and reported on hacking by the News of the World was always doomed to failure.
The Metropolitan police need to control the officers who are involved in these sensitive areas.
It isn’t quite over for the Guardian though, and their sources may yet have to be revealed if the Met can get its legal ducks in a row and follow the correct procedures for accessing such privileged information.
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