The Metropolitan Police has admitted it was wrong when it tried to use the Official Secrets Act to force a national newspaper reporter to reveal their journalistic sources.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Mark Simmons said today its decision to use the act to demand Guardian journalist Amelia Hill hand over information which would have revealed the source of many of the newspaper’s phone hacking stories was "inappropriate" and "wrong".
"Did we get it right in relation to the Official Secrets Act? No, I admit that," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "After an assessment, we decided the act was not an appropriate element of the application."
When asked whether the force had been heavy-handed in its treatment of the paper, which played a key role in revealing the scandal, he said: "I absolutely acknowledge the role the Guardian played in uncovering the phone-hacking and the Met's response to that, but the more glare on our relationship with the media, the more we do to ensure that public confidence is maintained.
"There is a tension between trying to police our own staff, internally, and their relationship with the media while recognising they have a different set of rules," he said today.
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger described the Met's climbdown as "the right decision and a huge relief": "I think most people were baffled that the act, which is about espionage and spying, should be used on a reporter going about her daily business," he said.
"However, it is still worrying that Scotland Yard used the word 'gratuitous' to describe the Milly Dowler story, trying to say it was not in the public interest. I think this shows up an odd mindset. To me it's a story that almost defines public interest journalism.
"I just hope that in our effort to clean up some of the worst practices we don't completely overreact and try and clamp down on perfectly normal and applaudable reporting," he said today.
Scotland Yard had intended to take the newspaper to court on Friday in an attempt to force the newspaper into revealing how it obtained information that missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s mobile phone had been hacked.
However, following discussions with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the force has abandoned its application for production orders against the newspaper.
Various MPs, including the shadow culture secretary Ivan Lewis, questioned the Yard’s attempt. While many national newspapers carried leading articles condemning the Metropolitan Police’s apparent attack on press freedom.
And today the former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith told the Daily Telegraph that the force’s decision to invoke the Official Secrets Act was “unusual” and could threaten press freedom.
The force made the application, which would force the newspaper to hand over material which would identify the source of several phone hacking stories the paper has revealed, on Friday.
But advice from Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, was not sought until Monday afternoon, three days after the application was made. The consent of the DPP is required for most prosecutions under the Official Secrets Act.
The DPP was engaged in discussions with officers from the Metropolitan Police’s professional standards department, the team which made the application for the production order.
Last night a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said: “The CPS has asked that more information be provided to its lawyers and for appropriate time to consider the matter.
“In addition the Metropolitan Police has taken further legal advice this afternoon and as a result has decided not to pursue, at this time, the application for production orders.”
The order against the Guardian was sought under the police and criminal evidence act, but the application said that potential offences may have been committed under the Official Secrets Act.
A serving detective on Operation Weeting, the Yard’s phone hacking investigation has been arrested on suspicion of leaking information to the newspaper, including the revelation that the missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked.
Scotland Yard believe the 51-year-old officer may have breached the Official Secrets Act.
The application for a production order asked that the Guardian, and its reporter Amelia Hill, hand over material which would disclose its sources for the Milly Dowler story and also who provided them with information which allowed it to reveal almost immediately the identities of those arrested in the hacking scandal.
The Scotland yard statement explained that “there was no intention to target journalists or disregard journalists’ obligations to protect their sources.”
But it adds: “It is not acceptable for police officers to leak information about any investigation, let alone one as sensitive and high profile as Operation Weeting.”
The force also did not rule out applying for production orders against the newspaper in the future, saying: “This decision does not mean that the investigation has been concluded. This investigation has always been about establishing whether a police officer has leaked information, and gathering any evidence that proves or disproves that.”
By Josie Ensor and Mark Hughes, The Telegraph