After a leak revealed that the British Ambassador to the USA had called Trump “inept, insecure and incompetent” (leading to the ambassador’s resignation and a round of Twitter insults between Trump and senior Tory officials), London’s Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu publicly warned journalists not to publish government leaks, threatening to imprison them if they do: “The publication of leaked communications, knowing the damage they have caused or are likely to cause may also be a criminal matter. 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 comments drew sharp criticism from the British press. The Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman called it a “sinister, absurd, anti-democratic statement” and tweeted, “Do you have any comprehension of a free society? This isn’t Russia.” The US managing editor of the Financial Times, Peter Spiegel, called the remarks “rather chilling from a major police force in a western democracy.”
The Tory leaders jockeying to be Prime Minister staked out opposing positions. Boris Johnson demanded that the leaker be “hunted down and prosecuted” (while not calling for any journalists to be targeted by police) while his rival Jeremy Hunt said he defended publishing leaks “in the public interest…to the hilt.”
Labour leader and PM-in-waiting Jeremy Corbyn defended the right of journalists to publish leaks, calling it “vital” and applauding the law’s “considerable protections” for a free press.
However, former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon said the leak was a clear breach of the Official Secrets Act and the police were entitled to try to prevent further disclosures.
“If they [the press] are receiving stolen material they should give it back to their rightful owner,” he told the 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.”