Following a series of media reports containing details from leaked diplomatic cables preceding the resignation of Sir Kim Darroch from his post as UK Ambassador to the US, the London Metropolitan Police threatened to treat the publication of leaked documents as criminal. The move came just after a Global Conference for Media Freedom was held in London from 10-11 July, co-hosted by the UK and Canadian governments, at which the UK government reaffirmed its commitment to protect media freedom.
On 12 July, Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu stated that “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 following day, 13 July, Basu appeared to partially back down, stating that the Met “respects 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, Basu maintained that publication “could also constitute a criminal offence, and one that carries no public interest defence”.
The Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command is overseeing the ongoing investigation into a possible criminal breach of the Official Secrets Act.
“The Met’s heavy-handed threat to treat the publication of leaked information as criminal is incredibly worrying. Journalists have a right and a duty to report information in the public interest - a right that is too often eroded in the UK in the name of national security. We must do better to protect this right in practice, otherwise the Foreign Office’s promises at the global media freedom conference ring hollow”, said RSF UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent.
In February 2017, an alarming Law Commission proposal envisaged replacing the Official Secrets Act with an updated “Espionage Act” that would make it easier to label journalists and others as “spies” with a possible sentence of up to 14 years in prison. The proposal was followed by a public consultation that closed in May 2017. Over two years later, the Law Commission has yet to respond to the consultation, and the government has not clarified its plans with regard to amending or replacing the Official Secrets Act.
The UK is ranked 33rd out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.