London's Metropolitan Police this week dropped their attempt to leverage the Official Secrets Act to force The Guardian to reveal confidential sources for stories about the phone-hacking scandal that has gripped the UK's political and media world. The Met's reversal is welcome, but its unprecedented attempt to invoke espionage laws to force a newspaper to reveal confidential sources has itself set a damaging precedent, suggesting that journalists are state enemies for obtaining sensitive information from government officials.
The Guardian reported that Scotland Yard came to its offices last week, demanding notebooks and other information from journalist Amelia Hill concerning her reports that the cell phone of Milly Dowler, a teenager brutally murdered in 2002, had been hacked on behalf of the News of the World. Police claimed The Guardian's articles about Operation Weeting, the police investigation into the phone hacking, had sprung from "gratuitous" leaks in the official inquiry.
As The Guardian reported, the demand for the newspaper's notes was formally made under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, but police also claimed that Hill had "incited" an Operation Weeting source to break the Official Secrets Act, and that the reporter herself may have broken the espionage law. The demand was met with wide condemnation from UK media, politicians, and others. The Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons has scheduled a private hearing today with Met officials to get an explanation.
Far from breaking state secret laws, The Guardian's reporting on the phone hacking scandal exemplifies what journalists should be doing--investigating and reporting on matters of great public interest. Protection of sources is key to this function and is recognized by international law and by the European Court of Human Rights. It is also upheld in Article 10 of the UK's own Human Rights Act. Threatening reporters with the Official Secrets Act was an attempt to circumvent those protections.
The Met may have backed down for now, but as the public inquiry led by Lord Justice Brian Leveson proceeds, it's worth remembering that the use of security laws to restrict press coverage does a disservice not only to news media but to society at large.
(Reporting from London)