Boris Johnson leads the condemnation of Met’s threat to PROSECUTE the Mail on Sunday

Boris Johnson leads the condemnation of Scotland Yard’s threat to PROSECUTE the Mail over Washington Files: Fury at commissioner Neil Basu’s ‘ill-advised’ and ‘stupid’ infringement of the free press

  • The Met Police launched a criminal probe into leak and publication of the memo
  • Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said the Mail on Sunday could be prosecuted
  • His statements have now been slammed by both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt 
  • Mr Johnson said prosecution ‘would amount to infringement on press freedom’ 

Conservative leadership rivals Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are leading the condemnation against Scotland Yard after a senior officer threatened to prosecute the Mail on Sunday for publishing leaked cables written by British ambassador Sir Kim Darroch.

The leaked documents revealed how Sir Kim, the UK’s man in Washington, called US president Donald Trump ‘inept’, ‘insecure’ and ‘incompetent’. 

On Friday evening, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu provoked anger by suggesting he could prosecute publications that print more information from the documents. 

Today, the Mail on Sunday revealed that the documents also show Sir Kim complained that Donald Trump axed the Iran nuclear deal to spite Barack Obama, despite the threats from Scotland Yard.

And Basu’s comments that publication could be a ‘criminal matter’ triggered an extraordinary row over the freedom of the press this weekend, with Mr Johnson and Jeremy Hunt leading the outrage.  

Health Secretary Matt Hancock called on the police to withdraw Mr Basu’s statement while former Chancellor George Osborne branded the comments ‘very stupid and ill-advised.’

Boris Johnson

Jeremy Hunt

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have led condemnation of the suggestion that the Mail on Sunday could be prosecuted for publishing cables written by British ambassador Sir Kim Darroch

Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn also criticised Mr Basu’s comments. 

Brexit Party leader Mr Farage said: ‘[The comments] smack of oppression. It’s the sort of language you expect to hear in a police state.’

And Labour leader Mr Corbyn added: ‘Freedom of the press is vital.’ 

Mr Johnson said prosecution ‘would amount to an infringement on press freedom and have a chilling effect on public debate’.

Mr Hunt said that he would ‘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’.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock goes further today by calling on the police to withdraw Mr Basu’s statement. Writing in this newspaper, he says: ‘The press must be free to publish what it believes to be in the public interest.

Politicians slam Met Police commissioner Neil Basu after he suggests the Mail could be prosecuted over Washington Files

Boris Johnson: ‘In my view there is no threat to national security implied in the release of this material. It is embarrassing, but it is not a threat to national security. 

‘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.’

Jeremy Hunt: ‘These leaks damaged UK-US relations and 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 and judge them to be in the public interest: that is their job’.

Nigel Farage: ‘[The comments] smack of oppression. It’s the sort of language you expect to hear in a police state.’

Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Freedom of the press is vital.’ 

Former Chancellor George Osborne: ‘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.’ 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock: ‘The press must be free to publish what it believes to be in the public interest.

‘Journalists and editors should not be subjected to threats of prosecution or sanction, especially from our own police. Such threats act as a deterrent to journalists doing their jobs – and the ultimate outcome will be an erosion of accountability.’ 

Conservative MP Damian Collins: ‘If there is an issue here, it is with the leaker and not with the Press for reporting it. The only investigation that police should be pursuing is if somebody has broken the Official Secrets Act by leaking information and not the journalist who is doing their job.’

Liberal Democrat leadership contender Ed Davey: ‘Press freedom has never been so under attack in my lifetime. There are alarming signs of a creeping police state tearing down the ancient democratic pillar of a free press, which is essential to hold government to account.

‘The Leader of the Opposition attacks the BBC for daring to point out his party’s anti-Semitism and the incoming Prime Minister threatens to close down Parliament, all of which adds up to an attack on our very democracy. Threatening journalists with the spectre of jail for bravely reporting the story is a disgrace.’

Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell: ‘I don’t welcome the Met Police stepping in to threaten legal action against broadcasters and newspapers. If someone has committed any crime under the Official Secrets Act – individual civil servants – of course the police will investigate.’

Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis: ‘A free press is vital for our country and our democracy. It challenges and enlightens us … Sad this point has to be made at all.’ 

Liberal Democrat former health secretary Norman Lamb: ‘It strikes at the heart of the principle of a free press. We undermine this principle at our peril. It is central to our liberal democracy and must be defended. We do not live in a police state.’ 

John Whittingdale, the former culture secretary: ‘The idea of prosecuting journalists is completely wrong. I am horrified these communications were made public. But there is no point shooting the messenger.’

Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee: ‘I doubt it is a crime to publish. The ability to have a free press is essential.’

‘Journalists and editors should not be subjected to threats of prosecution or sanction, especially from our own police. Such threats act as a deterrent to journalists doing their jobs – and the ultimate outcome will be an erosion of accountability.’ 

In a statement released yesterday, the Met said it had been advised that the publication of the documents could ‘constitute a criminal offence and one that carries no public interest defence’.

In other dramatic developments:

  • Spies at the Government’s ultra-secretive GCHQ were poised to joined the hunt for the leaker by targeting email and mobile phone records;
  • The Queen’s former private secretary Christopher Geidt was named by Whitehall sources as a frontrunner to replace Sir Kim in Washington;
  • Tensions ramped up further between Britain and Iran with the Royal Navy’s £1 billion destroyer HMS Duncan being sent to the Persian Gulf to protect UK vessels against attack by Iranian boats.

Sir Kim’s Iran memo was sent in May 2018, after Mr Johnson – who was then Foreign Secretary – had been dispatched to Washington to make a last ditch plea to President Trump not to abandon the nuclear deal with Iran designed to prevent the regime from building an atomic bomb.

Despite a frantic 26 hours of meetings with Trump’s closest advisers, it became clear that the President was not going to change his mind.

After Mr Johnson returned to London, Sir Kim told No 10 in a ‘diptel’ (diplomatic telegram) that Mr Trump’s Administration was ‘set upon an act of diplomatic vandalism’. The Ambassador wrote that Mr Trump appeared to be abandoning the deal for ‘personality reasons’ because it had been agreed by his predecessor Barack Obama.

Sir Kim suggested there were splits among the President’s closest advisers and said the White House lacked a ‘day-after’ strategy on what to do following withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal was called.

This newspaper’s cache of leaked memos from Sir Kim dominated headlines on both sides of the Atlantic last week, after Trump reacted furiously to Sir Kim describing the White House as a ‘uniquely dysfunctional environment’ and ‘diplomatically clumsy and inept’.

The President called Sir Kim a ‘pompous fool’ and declared that he would no longer deal with him.

Sir Kim resigned on Wednesday shortly after Mr Johnson refused to say during a televised Tory leadership debate whether he would keep the Ambassador in his job if he became Prime Minister.

The leak infuriated the Foreign Office and No 10. Their determination to catch he culprit is indicated by the fact that – according to a Government source – the cyber-experts at GCHQ are about to be brought in to target a shortlist of suspects drawn up by civil service investigators. The spooks have far-reaching powers to intercept communications.

The freedom of the press row erupted after Assistant Commissioner Basu said that Scotland Yard was investigating alleged ‘criminal breaches of the Official Secrets Act’ and warned the media that they could be committing an offence by publishing further details. 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’.

The Met’s Counter Terrorism Command has taken charge of the investigation as it is in charge of any allegations of criminal breaches of the Official Secrets Act.

But Mr Johnson, speaking at a Tory leadership hustings in Bedfordshire, said it could not ‘conceivably be right’ that newspapers ‘publishing such material face prosecution’.

He said: ‘In my view there is no threat to national security implied in the release of this material. It is embarrassing, but it is not a threat to national security. 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.’

Mr Johnson added that he disagreed with former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon – tipped as possible Foreign Secretary under Mr Johnson – for saying that the media should hand back documents to ‘their rightful owner’.

Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said the publication of the leaks could be a 'criminal matter' and said the Mail on Sunday could be prosecuted

Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said the publication of the leaks could be a ‘criminal matter’ and said the Mail on Sunday could be prosecuted

Britain’s Ambassador to Washington Sir Kim Darroch claimed that Donald Trump abandoned the Iran nuclear deal as an act of ‘diplomatic vandalism’ to spite his predecessor Barack Obama

A leak of a cable written by Britain’s Ambassador to Washington Sir Kim Darroch dominated headlines worldwide

Meanwhile, Mr Hunt said: ‘These leaks damaged UK-US relations and 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 and judge them to be in the public interest: that is their job’.

Mr Osborne, now editor of the London Evening Standard, told Cressida Dick, the Met Commissioner, that her constabulary was in a mess and she should officially overrule Mr Basu. He said in a tweet: ‘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.’

Conservative MP Damian Collins said: ‘If there is an issue here, it is with the leaker and not with the Press for reporting it. The only investigation that police should be pursuing is if somebody has broken the Official Secrets Act by leaking information and not the journalist who is doing their job.’ 

Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis said: ‘A free press is vital for our country and our democracy. It challenges and enlightens us … Sad this point has to be made at all.’ 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has called on the police to withdraw Mr Basu's statement

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has called on the police to withdraw Mr Basu’s statement

Former Chancellor George Osborne also slammed the remarks, describing them as 'very stupid and ill-advised'

Former Chancellor George Osborne also slammed the remarks, describing them as ‘very stupid and ill-advised’

Liberal Democrat former health secretary Norman Lamb: ‘It strikes at the heart of the principle of a free press. We undermine this principle at our peril. It is central to our liberal democracy and must be defended. We do not live in a police state.’ 

John Whittingdale, the former culture secretary, said: ‘The idea of prosecuting journalists is completely wrong. I am horrified these communications were made public. But there is no point shooting the messenger.’

Who is the officer threatening press with prosecution? 

He is the Scotland Yard high-flyer with what many regard as the toughest job in policing.

Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, Britain’s top Asian police officer, oversees terrorism investigations at the Metropolitan Police and is the so-called ‘national lead’ officer for counter-terror operations across the UK.

Colleagues say he is well-liked within the force and by intelligence officials at MI5 and is likely to be a contender to be the next Met Commissioner.

Yet his 27-year police career has not been without controversy, most notably as head of Operations Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta. The three inquiries into phone hacking, computer hacking and alleged payments to police officers by newspapers cost around £19.5 million and were criticised for criminalising journalists. Critics at the time said the Met could have spent the money going after terrorists, murderers and drug dealers.

Mr Basu also raised eyebrows when he criticised the Prevent programme – which tries to detect and deradicalise Muslim extremists – as ‘toxic’. ‘Government will not thank me for saying this, but an independent reviewer of Prevent… would be a healthy thing,’ he said.

A Hindu, born to an Indian doctor father and a white British mother, he has said he has encountered racism over most of his life.

He grew up in Stafford, where he studied at Walton High School before reading economics at Nottingham University. He became a Met police officer in 1992, serving first as a beat bobby in Battersea, South London, then swiftly moving through the ranks as a borough commander in Barnet, North London, and a Commander of South London in 2012.

His first major high-profile Met post came in 2014, when he was appointed Commander – Organised Crime and Gangs. Three years later, as a Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Mr Basu was tested as Britain was hit by an unprecedented five terrorist attacks in one year, including the Manchester bombing that killed 22 people and the Westminster attack, which killed four, including a police officer.

The most-high profile counter-terrorism investigation overseen by Mr Basu in his current role was the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury last year, which the Met says was directed by the Kremlin.

A father with three sons, Mr Basu is married to Dr Nina Cope, a senior official at the National Crime Agency, often described as Britain’s FBI.

 

Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, added: ‘I doubt it is a crime to publish. The ability to have a free press is essential.’

Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said: ‘I don’t welcome the Met Police stepping in to threaten legal action against broadcasters and newspapers. If someone has committed any crime under the Official Secrets Act – individual civil servants – of course the police will investigate.’

And Liberal Democrat leadership contender Ed Davey said: ‘Press freedom has never been so under attack in my lifetime. There are alarming signs of a creeping police state tearing down the ancient democratic pillar of a free press, which is essential to hold government to account.

‘The Leader of the Opposition attacks the BBC for daring to point out his party’s anti-Semitism and the incoming Prime Minister threatens to close down Parliament, all of which adds up to an attack on our very democracy. Threatening journalists with the spectre of jail for bravely reporting the story is a disgrace.’

In response to the growing furore, Mr Basu released a further statement yesterday in which he said that the 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’. 

However, he stoked suspicions that the force had come under political pressure by adding: ‘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. 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 Act, 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 [newspapers] to the risk of breaching the Act’.

Following the furore over the Washington cables, Lord Geidt, who spent ten years as the Queen’s private secretary, is being tipped as a potential replacement for Sir Kim because his impeccable royal connections would impress Trump – and he has made it clear that he is ‘looking for new challenges’.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘A police inquiry into the totally unacceptable leak of this sensitive material has begun. The perpetrator should face the consequences of their actions. It’s not news that the US and UK differ in how to ensure Iran is never able to acquire a nuclear weapon; but this does underline that we do not shy away from talking about our differences and working together.

‘That is true of the current tensions in the Gulf where we, the UK, are in close contact with our American and European allies to de-escalate the situation.’ 

A line has been crossed. They need classes in free speech at police college, says ALAN RUSBRIDGER

What, you wonder, do they teach them in police college these days? Gangs, cyber crime, forensics, public safety, drugs –there’s doubtless a lot to learn. But I would like to suggest a new and compulsory course, let’s call it The Basics Of Free Speech.

Lesson number 1. The police do not tell newspaper editors what to write.

You think this is too basic? That in 21st Century Britain no police officer would dream of telling a newspaper editor not to publish information and meekly to hand back any leaked documents to their rightful owners?

If you think that, then you haven’t been paying attention. You evidently missed Friday’s statement from one of the most senior officers in the , ‘advising’ owners, editors, publishers – along with anyone on social media – exactly what they shouldn’t publish.

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: What was Neil Basu (pictured) thinking? Does he really think it is the role of the police to start dictating what newspapers get to write about and to help identify sources by handing back leaked documents?

And you evidently missed Mr Basu doubling down last night with another statement saying it was his duty to ‘prevent crime’ by warning editors off publishing material which could be classified as secret.

What was Mr Basu thinking? Does he really think it is the role of the police to start dictating what newspapers get to write about and to help identify sources by handing back leaked documents? Did no one teach him in police college that, while journalists have never considered themselves above the law, it’s not for the cops to tell an editor how, or what, to edit?

NOR is it – except in the most exceptional of circumstances – the duty of Government. The last time this happened to me came in the form of a visitation in 2013 from the then Cabinet Secretary, the late Sir Jeremy Heywood, acting on instructions from the Prime Minister, David Cameron.

The Government did not approve of newspapers publishing leaked material about the relationship between Big Tech and intelligence agencies. ‘You’ve published enough,’ Heywood purred. ‘You don’t need to publish any more.’

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: The last time this happened to me came in the form of a visitation in 2013 from the then Cabinet Secretary, the late Sir Jeremy Heywood (pictured in 2012), acting on instructions from the Prime Minister, David Cameron

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: The last time this happened to me came in the form of a visitation in 2013 from the then Cabinet Secretary, the late Sir Jeremy Heywood (pictured in 2012), acting on instructions from the Prime Minister, David Cameron

There was a slight hint of menace in his voice as he added: ‘You are in the possession of stolen papers.’

I thanked him for his advice, but reminded him that it wasn’t for the Government of the day to tell a newspaper editor what was ‘enough’.

In the end, we transferred our material to the US where, thanks to Supreme Court judgments robustly defending the Constitution’s First Amendment protection for free speech, it would be unthinkable for a US Administration to behave in this way.

Of course, it’s easy to understand the frustration of both police and governments. It is always alarming to someone in authority when highly confidential material finds its way into the public domain. We can easily imagine why the police would order up a leak inquiry and move heaven and earth to find out how Sir Kim Darroch’s musings on Donald Trump ended up across six pages of The Mail on Sunday.

I also understand why governments, police forces and intelligence services might want to give specific guidance on aspects of particular individual stories.

In Britain, we have a slightly Heath-Robinson system called the Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee – a voluntary arrangement which tries to prevent inadvertent disclosure of, for instance, military operations or the safety of intelligence operatives.

But there’s a giant leap from trying to unearth a source, or giving tailored advice, to a blanket warning not to publish. A line has been crossed in a quite alarming way. A police college course on the Basics Of Free Speech might include the story of Daniel Ellsberg, an ex-Marine working as an analyst, who in 1971 leaked classified documents about the Vietnam War to the New York Times and Washington Post.

The so-called Pentagon Papers showed that the public narrative about a war which cost more than 58,000 US lives was essentially a false one. The American government of the day was furious. President Richard Nixon thought the actions of the editors was close to treason. General Al Haig, then one of his senior advisers, said it was ‘devastating… a security breach of the greatest magnitude of anything I’ve ever seen.’

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Nixon – in a famous case celebrated in Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film The Post (pictured) – went to court to try to stop publication. He failed

ALAN RUSBRIDGER: Nixon – in a famous case celebrated in Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film The Post (pictured) – went to court to try to stop publication. He failed

Nixon – in a famous case celebrated in Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film The Post – went to court to try to stop publication. He failed. The newspapers won 6-3 in the Supreme Court. Mr Justice Black said that ‘in revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.’

The judge added: ‘The word ‘security’ is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be involved to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment. The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic.’

Ellsberg, now a snowy haired and avuncular 88-year-old living in California, is these day generally regarded as a hero, not a traitor. He has been garlanded with honours around the world. It’s hard to think back to the panicked mindset that, nearly 50 years ago, led to him being labelled an enemy of the state and charged under the Espionage Act – the US equivalent of our own Official Secrets Act.

I wish Mr Basu could go back to college and study the Ellsberg case, and many others like it. Instead, he seems to think it’s his duty to tell editors they could be risking prosecution under the Official Secrets Act (to which there is no public interest defence) and that it is his job to ‘prevent, as well as detect’ crime.

If Mr Basu genuinely knows of particular material which could be really damaging to public operations or safety then any editor would be pleased to receive specific guidance. But it’s really not his job to issue generalised warnings about what is, and isn’t, acceptable to publish.

That’s Free Speech 101. I’m surprised the police don’t study it any more.

Alan Rusbridger is a former Editor of The Guardian. He is now Principal of Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford and chairs the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. He is the author of Breaking News: The Remaking Of Journalism And Why It Matters Now

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