In Brief

Legal battle looms over Met attack on Guardian

Police action is an abuse of the Official Secrets Act and the Human Rights Act, say editors and lawyers

Guardian offices

WHAT'S HAPPENED?

LAWYERS and journalists have rushed to the defence of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger following the revelation that Scotland Yard plans to use the 1989 Official Secrets Act, designed to prevent espionage, to force the paper to reveal its sources in its recent coverage of the phone-hacking scandal.

In particular, it appears the police want to know who exactly told the Guardian that the News of the World had hacked into the phone messages of the murdered teenager Milly Dowler.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

Investigative reporters and their editors work on the assumption that if they are breaking stories in the public interest, their sources must be allowed to remain anonymous. If journalists are forced to betray their sources, the flow of information will inevitably dry up.

In breaking the Milly Dowler story, the Guardian raised the game in its long-running coverage of the News of the World hacking scandal. A litany of celebrities had been revealed to have had their phones hacked, but the general public were not overly sympathetic.

However, the news that the NotW had hacked into the messages of a missing girl, even clearing out old messages to make room for new ones, came as a real shock to the public and to parliament. It was this revelation, published exclusively by the Guardian on July 4, that led Rupert Murdoch to take the extraordinary decision to close the newspaper down.

In media circles, the Guardian's Milly Dowler expose is acknowledged as a great scoop and one which had real repercussions for the public good.

The police claim they do not wish "to prevent whistle blowing or investigative journalism that is in the public interest". In a statement issued yesterday, they said: "We pay tribute to the Guardian's unwavering determination to expose the hacking scandal and their challenge around the initial police response."

But they still want to know who was leaking information to the Guardian that enabled the paper to break its phone-hacking stories. And they are prepared to use the Official Secrets Act to do so.

According to the Guardian's sister Sunday paper, the Observer, lawyers for the Met will apply this Friday for an order under the 1989 Act to require the paper to give up its sources.

WHAT NEXT?

Alan Rusbridger says the Met's move is "vindictive and disproportionate" and that the Guardian will resist it "to the utmost". If there is to be a legal battle, we can expect to see some of the legal world's biggest guns deployed.

Geoffrey Robertson QC has already described the Met's move as "reaching for the blunderbuss". He makes the point that the Guardian's coverage "exposed not only the hackers but also the incompetence of the police, and it is no doubt for that reason that Scotland Yard is overzealous in its latest attempt to discover their sources."

Like Robertson, Harold Evans, the respected former editor of the Sunday Times in an era when that paper was renowned for its investigative reporting, says the Met's move is a "cavalier abuse of an act intended to protect national security, not to cover up negligence and corruption, least of all to justify an assault on the very newspaper that exposed the original crime while the police, politicians and the press walked by."

Leading human rights lawyer John Cooper also believes it's an abuse of the 1989 Act. "Fundamentally the act was designed to prevent espionage," he told the Observer. "In extreme cases it can be used to prevent police officers tipping off criminals about police investigations or from selling their stories. In this instance none of this is suggested, and many believe what was done was in the public interest."

Both Cooper and Robertson believe the Met's action is also likely to contravene article 10 of the European Human Rights Act, which protects freedom of speech.

So, this could go beyond the London courts to Strasbourg if the attorney-general doesn't step in first and put a stop to it, as Harold Evans believes he must.

Otherwise, the Guardian might want to call upon the newest recruit to the ranks of British press barons – Alexander Lebedev, owner of the Independent, who, as we report elsewhere on The First Post today, is no slouch with his fists.

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