The Guardian has found itself the latest unwilling participant in the ever-increasing circle of the phone hacking scandal. The Metropolitan Police are attempting to use the Official Secrets Act to force the newspaper to disclose its sources.
Lest we forget, the Guardian broke the phone hacking story back in July which led to the demise of the News of the World. It also led to widespread criticism of the police's failure to investigate the latter’s hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone after she went missing. Scotland Yard believe that the Official Secrets Act was breached by the Guardian’s story and are now demanding information on their sources.
It’s not the first time that police have tried to use the Official Secrets Act against journalists but all previous cases have failed or been dropped. Should this one succeed, a vital tenet of investigative journalism will have been breached. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) have spoken out against what has been described as an ‘outrageous abuse’:
‘The protection of sources is an essential principle which has been repeatedly reaffirmed by the European court of human rights as the cornerstone of press freedom. The NUJ shall defend it. In 2007 a judge made it clear that journalists and their sources are protected under article 10 of the Human Rights Act and it applies to leaked material. The use of the Official Secrets Act is a disgraceful attempt to get round this existing judgment.’
The Guardian’s phone hacking scandal stories certainly left the police looking less than shining beacons of competence and openness – senior officers tried to dissuade the Guardian from running the story while failing to mention the rather pertinent fact that they had hired former NOTW deputy editor Neil Wallis as an advisor. The ensuing resignation of Sir Paul Stephenson and assistant commissioner John Yates over the scandal left Boris Johnson facing some tough questions from the London Assembly.
For those of us who until now were unfamiliar with the Official Secrets Act, the section which the Met are attempting to employ in this unprecedented and unwelcome fashion indicates that individuals can be prosecuted for passing on information which could damage an investigation.
The Guardian's editor Alan Rusbridger said in response, 'We shall resist this extraordinary demand to the utmost.'