Conservative leadership rivals Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are leading the condemnation against Scotland Yard after a senior officer threatened to prosecute the Mail on Sunday for publishing leaked cables written by British ambassador Sir Kim Darroch.
The leaked documents revealed how Sir Kim, the UK’s man in Washington, called US president Donald Trump ‘inept’, ‘insecure’ and ‘incompetent’.
The Metropolitan Police launched a criminal probe into the leak of the memo with Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu’s saying publication could be a ‘criminal matter’.
His comments triggered an extraordinary row over the freedom of the press this weekend, with Mr Johnson and Jeremy Hunt leading the condemnation.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock called on the police to withdraw Mr Basu’s statement while former Chancellor George Osborne branded the comments ‘very stupid and ill-advised.’
Boris Johnson has led condemnation of the suggestion that the Mail on Sunday could be prosecuted for publishing cables written by British ambassador Sir Kim Darroch
Conservative leadership rival Jeremy Hunt joined Mr Johnson and said he would ‘defend to the hilt the right of the press to publish those leaks if they receive them and judge them to be in the public interest’
Mr Johnson said prosecution ‘would amount to an infringement on press freedom and have a chilling effect on public debate’.
Mr Hunt said that he would ‘defend to the hilt the right of the press to publish those leaks if they receive them and judge them to be in the public interest’.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock goes further today by calling on the police to withdraw Mr Basu’s statement. Writing in this newspaper, he says: ‘The press must be free to publish what it believes to be in the public interest.
‘Journalists and editors should not be subjected to threats of prosecution or sanction, especially from our own police. Such threats act as a deterrent to journalists doing their jobs – and the ultimate outcome will be an erosion of accountability.’
Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said the publication of the leaks could be a ‘criminal matter’ and said the Mail on Sunday could be prosecuted
In a statement released yesterday, the Met said it had been advised that the publication of the documents could ‘constitute a criminal offence and one that carries no public interest defence’.
In other dramatic developments:
- Spies at the Government’s ultra-secretive GCHQ were poised to joined the hunt for the leaker by targeting email and mobile phone records;
- The Queen’s former private secretary Christopher Geidt was named by Whitehall sources as a frontrunner to replace Sir Kim in Washington;
- Tensions ramped up further between Britain and Iran with the Royal Navy’s £1 billion destroyer HMS Duncan being sent to the Persian Gulf to protect UK vessels against attack by Iranian boats.
Sir Kim’s Iran memo was sent in May 2018, after Mr Johnson – who was then Foreign Secretary – had been dispatched to Washington to make a last ditch plea to President Trump not to abandon the nuclear deal with Iran designed to prevent the regime from building an atomic bomb.
Who is the officer threatening press with prosecution?
He is the Scotland Yard high-flyer with what many regard as the toughest job in policing.
Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, Britain’s top Asian police officer, oversees terrorism investigations at the Metropolitan Police and is the so-called ‘national lead’ officer for counter-terror operations across the UK.
Colleagues say he is well-liked within the force and by intelligence officials at MI5 and is likely to be a contender to be the next Met Commissioner.
Yet his 27-year police career has not been without controversy, most notably as head of Operations Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta. The three inquiries into phone hacking, computer hacking and alleged payments to police officers by newspapers cost around £19.5 million and were criticised for criminalising journalists. Critics at the time said the Met could have spent the money going after terrorists, murderers and drug dealers.
Mr Basu also raised eyebrows when he criticised the Prevent programme – which tries to detect and deradicalise Muslim extremists – as ‘toxic’. ‘Government will not thank me for saying this, but an independent reviewer of Prevent… would be a healthy thing,’ he said.
A Hindu, born to an Indian doctor father and a white British mother, he has said he has encountered racism over most of his life.
He grew up in Stafford, where he studied at Walton High School before reading economics at Nottingham University. He became a Met police officer in 1992, serving first as a beat bobby in Battersea, South London, then swiftly moving through the ranks as a borough commander in Barnet, North London, and a Commander of South London in 2012.
His first major high-profile Met post came in 2014, when he was appointed Commander – Organised Crime and Gangs. Three years later, as a Deputy Assistant Commissioner, Mr Basu was tested as Britain was hit by an unprecedented five terrorist attacks in one year, including the Manchester bombing that killed 22 people and the Westminster attack, which killed four, including a police officer.
The most-high profile counter-terrorism investigation overseen by Mr Basu in his current role was the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury last year, which the Met says was directed by the Kremlin.
A father with three sons, Mr Basu is married to Dr Nina Cope, a senior official at the National Crime Agency, often described as Britain’s FBI.
Despite a frantic 26 hours of meetings with Trump’s closest advisers, it became clear that the President was not going to change his mind.
After Mr Johnson returned to London, Sir Kim told No 10 in a ‘diptel’ (diplomatic telegram) that Mr Trump’s Administration was ‘set upon an act of diplomatic vandalism’. The Ambassador wrote that Mr Trump appeared to be abandoning the deal for ‘personality reasons’ because it had been agreed by his predecessor Barack Obama.
Sir Kim suggested there were splits among the President’s closest advisers and said the White House lacked a ‘day-after’ strategy on what to do following withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal was called.
This newspaper’s cache of leaked memos from Sir Kim dominated headlines on both sides of the Atlantic last week, after Trump reacted furiously to Sir Kim describing the White House as a ‘uniquely dysfunctional environment’ and ‘diplomatically clumsy and inept’.
The President called Sir Kim a ‘pompous fool’ and declared that he would no longer deal with him.
Sir Kim resigned on Wednesday shortly after Mr Johnson refused to say during a televised Tory leadership debate whether he would keep the Ambassador in his job if he became Prime Minister.
The leak infuriated the Foreign Office and No 10. Their determination to catch he culprit is indicated by the fact that – according to a Government source – the cyber-experts at GCHQ are about to be brought in to target a shortlist of suspects drawn up by civil service investigators. The spooks have far-reaching powers to intercept communications.
The freedom of the press row erupted after Assistant Commissioner Basu said that Scotland Yard was investigating alleged ‘criminal breaches of the Official Secrets Act’ and warned the media that they could be committing an offence by publishing further details. He said: ‘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 Met’s Counter Terrorism Command has taken charge of the investigation as it is in charge of any allegations of criminal breaches of the Official Secrets Act.
But Mr Johnson, speaking at a Tory leadership hustings in Bedfordshire, said it could not ‘conceivably be right’ that newspapers ‘publishing such material face prosecution’.
He said: ‘In my view there is no threat to national security implied in the release of this material. It is embarrassing, but it is not a threat to national security. It is the duty of media organisations to bring new and interesting facts into the public domain. That is what they are there for. A prosecution on this basis would amount to an infringement on press freedom and have a chilling effect on public debate.’
Mr Johnson added that he disagreed with former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon – tipped as possible Foreign Secretary under Mr Johnson – for saying that the media should hand back documents to ‘their rightful owner’.
A leak of a cable written by Britain’s Ambassador to Washington Sir Kim Darroch dominated headlines worldwide
Meanwhile, Mr Hunt said: ‘These leaks damaged UK-US relations and cost a loyal Ambassador his job so the person responsible must be held fully to account. But I defend to the hilt the right of the press to publish those leaks if they receive them and judge them to be in the public interest: that is their job’.
Mr Osborne, now editor of the London Evening Standard, told Cressida Dick, the Met Commissioner, that her constabulary was in a mess and she should officially overrule Mr Basu. He said in a tweet: ‘If I were the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and I wanted to maintain my credibility and the credibility of my force, I would quickly distance myself from this very stupid and ill-advised statement from a junior officer who doesn’t appear to understand much about press freedom.’
Tom Tugendhat, the chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, added: ‘I doubt it is a crime to publish. The ability to have a free press is essential.’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has called on the police to withdraw Mr Basu’s statement
Former Chancellor George Osborne also slammed the remarks, describing them as ‘very stupid and ill-advised’
Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said: ‘I don’t welcome the Met Police stepping in to threaten legal action against broadcasters and newspapers. If someone has committed any crime under the Official Secrets Act – individual civil servants – of course the police will investigate.’
And Liberal Democrat leadership contender Ed Davey said: ‘Press freedom has never been so under attack in my lifetime. There are alarming signs of a creeping police state tearing down the ancient democratic pillar of a free press, which is essential to hold government to account.
‘The Leader of the Opposition attacks the BBC for daring to point out his party’s anti-Semitism and the incoming Prime Minister threatens to close down Parliament, all of which adds up to an attack on our very democracy. Threatening journalists with the spectre of jail for bravely reporting the story is a disgrace.’
In response to the growing furore, Mr Basu released a further statement yesterday in which he said that the police ‘respect 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, he stoked suspicions that the force had come under political pressure by adding: ‘We have received legal advice that has caused us to start a criminal enquiry into the leak of these specific documents as a potential breach of the Official Secrets Act. The focus of the investigation is clearly on identifying who was responsible for the leak.
‘However, we have also been told the publication of these specific documents, now knowing they may be a breach of the Act, could also constitute a criminal offence and one that carries no public interest defence. We know these documents and potentially others remain in circulation. We have a duty to prevent as well as detect crime and the previous statement was intended to alert [newspapers] to the risk of breaching the Act’.
Following the furore over the Washington cables, Lord Geidt, who spent ten years as the Queen’s private secretary, is being tipped as a potential replacement for Sir Kim because his impeccable royal connections would impress Trump – and he has made it clear that he is ‘looking for new challenges’.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: ‘A police inquiry into the totally unacceptable leak of this sensitive material has begun. The perpetrator should face the consequences of their actions. It’s not news that the US and UK differ in how to ensure Iran is never able to acquire a nuclear weapon; but this does underline that we do not shy away from talking about our differences and working together.
‘That is true of the current tensions in the Gulf where we, the UK, are in close contact with our American and European allies to de-escalate the situation.’