Minister reminds Britons to heed Official Secrets Act

Uproar by media, politicians as police chief warns against publication of leaked papers

LONDON • Senior British politicians, including contenders to be the next prime minister, joined journalists yesterday in criticising the police for warning media not to publish leaked government documents, saying it was a "dangerous road to tread".

Last week, a Sunday newspaper published leaked memos from Britain's Washington ambassador that provoked a diplomatic spat with US President Donald Trump and ultimately led to the envoy announcing his resignation.

Britain's most senior counter-terrorism officer, Mr Neil Basu, said on Friday that police would investigate who was responsible but also warned journalists and publishers that they, too, could be in breach of the law if further documents were leaked.

"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... (the) government," Mr Basu said.

His comments provoked anger and criticism from journalists, editors and politicians who said it risked infringing the freedom of the press.

"The state threatening media freedom is a dangerous road to tread," Health Minister Matt Hancock said on Twitter.

Mr George Osborne, editor of the London Evening Standard and a former finance minister, described the remarks as a "very stupid and ill-advised statement from a junior officer who doesn't appear to understand much about press freedom".


His view was echoed by both men battling to replace Mrs Theresa May as prime minister when she steps down on July 24, after failing to deliver Britain's exit from the European Union.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his predecessor Boris Johnson said the person who leaked the documents should be found but the press should not be targeted. "It cannot be conceivably right that newspapers or any other media organisation publishing such material should face prosecution," Mr Johnson said at a campaign event in central England.

Mr Hunt wrote on Twitter: "I defend to the hilt the right of the press to publish those leaks if they receive them & judge them to be in the public interest: that is their job."

The Mail On Sunday last week published diplomatic cables from Mr Kim Darroch, Britain's ambassador to the United States, in which he called the Trump administration "inept", prompting the President to label him "very stupid" and "wacky".

The spat has become one of the central issues of the contest for leadership of the governing Conservative Party and the country's next prime minister that will be decided by about 160,000 members of the party.

A diplomatic source told Reuters the lack of backing from the front runner, Mr Johnson, had been a factor in Mr Darroch's decision to resign.

Mr Johnson acknowledged his comments had been partly responsible but denied he was to blame.

Not all politicians, though, felt the police were wrong.

Security Minister Ben Wallace said members of the public were bound by parts of the Official Secrets Act.

And former defence minister Michael Fallon told BBC Radio: "If (journalists) are receiving stolen material, they should give it back to their rightful owner and they should also be aware of the huge damage that's already been done and the even greater damage that could be done."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 14, 2019, with the headline 'Minister reminds Britons to heed Official Secrets Act'. Print Edition | Subscribe