Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand
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.
While he later sought to clarify the remarks, 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.”
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 his first 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.”
Mr Basu issued a second statement in which he said the Met had "no intention of seeking to prevent editors from publishing stories in the public interest in a liberal democracy".
He added: "The media hold an important role in scrutinising the actions of the state.
"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."
His earlier comments were condemned by George Osborne, the editor of the London Evening Standard, as “very stupid and ill-advised”.
The former chancellor said that Mr Basu failed to understand the importance of press freedom and urged Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick to disown his warning.
“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,” he tweeted.
Tory MP Bob Seely said that while the police were entitled to pursue whoever passed the documents to the press, it was a mistake to target journalists.
“Going after the leaker is fair game, going after the media is not,” he said.
However, former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon said the leak was a clear breach of the Official Secrets Act and that the Government and the police were entitled to try to prevent further disclosures.
“If they are receiving stolen material they should give it back to their rightful owner,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“They should also be aware of the huge damage that has already been done and the potentially even greater damage to be done by further breaches of the Official Secrets Act. That is the law of the land.
“I think the Government and the police are fully entitled to find out who was involved in that and if they can to prevent it happening again.”
Sir Kim announced on Wednesday he was resigning, saying his position had become “impossible” following the leak of his dispatches in which he described Donald Trump’s White House as “inept” and “dysfunctional”.
His comments drew a furious response from the president who denounced him as a “very stupid guy” and a “pompous fool” and said the White House would no longer deal with him.
Mr Basu said the Met had been brought in following a cross-government investigation led by the Cabinet Office into the leak of the cables to The Mail On Sunday.
In a statement, he urged whoever was responsible to turn themselves in and face the consequences of their actions.
“You can stop this now. Turn yourself in at the earliest opportunity, explain yourself and face the consequences,” he said.