British police rue bid to reveal Guardian's hacking sources

21st September 2011, Comments 0 comments

London's police force admitted Wednesday it was wrong to invoke a harsh secrecy law to force The Guardian newspaper to reveal the source for its reports on the British phone hacking scandal.

The Metropolitan Police Service announced on Tuesday that it had dropped an application for a court order against The Guardian, which broke the story of hacking at Rupert Murdoch's now-closed News of the World.

"The view I came to when I looked at the matter was that the Official Secrets Act was not an appropriate element of the application, and that was the basis of the decision to withdraw the application at this time," Deputy Assistant Commissioner Mark Simmons told the BBC.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger welcomed the decision to drop the application, but criticised police for saying that they would still pursue the investigation into the alleged leaks by police staff.

"They should just stop that," Rusbridger told the BBC.

"These are reporters who are just doing their ordinary business. If you are going to criminalise reporters who talk to public officials on an unauthorised basis, you would be locking up most journalists in Britain."

The left-leaning Guardian revealed in July that the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a teenage murder victim, had been hacked into by the News of the World, a Sunday tabloid owned by the Australian-born Murdoch's News International.

The story led to a public outcry and Murdoch closed the News of the World shortly afterwards, while Scotland Yard's chief and another senior officer resigned over their links to Murdoch's empire.

On Friday the force said it had applied for a production order against The Guardian and its reporter Amelia Hill over claims that a senior detective leaked the information about Dowler to the paper.

It said the application was "in order to seek evidence of offences connected to potential breaches relating to Misconduct in Public Office and the Official Secrets Act".

The move sparked an outcry, with film star Hugh Grant -- normally a vocal critic of the media -- describing Scotland Yard's actions as "worrying and deeply mysterious", and global security watchdog OSCE urging police to drop the application.

On Tuesday the force backed down, saying that after meeting with the director of public prosecutions and taking further legal advice it had "decided not to pursue, at this time, the application for production orders."

Simmons denied that the case had harmed Scotland Yard, but said the changing relationship between the police and the media in Britain was taking police into "uncomfortable territory."

"Did we get it right in this case, the reference to the Official Secrets Act in that application? I've said no that wasn't right and I've acknowledged that," he said.

But when there were allegations that officers had leaked confidential information to the media "we have to pursue that robustly, and that takes us into really difficult and uncomfortable territory" he said.

Rusbridger said it was a "regrettable incident, but let's hope it's over."

"I just hope that in our effort to clean up some of the worst practices we don't completely overreact and try and clamp down on perfectly normal and applaudable reporting," he said.

News International is set to pay two million pounds ($3.1 million, 2.3 million euros) in compensation to Milly Dowler's family while Murdoch himself will make a donation of one million pounds to charity, reports said Monday.

© 2011 AFP

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