By Jack Shafer
The views expressed are his own.
What were the London police thinking when they invoked the Official Secrets Act last week to compel Guardian reporters Amelia Hill and Nick Davies to disclose the confidential source for their July 4 Milly Dowler phone-hacking story? Did they think the Guardian would roll over when they arrived in court on Friday to contest the order? That Hill and Davies would submit? That free-speech advocates, members of Parliament, and journalists around the world would pay no mind to the prosecutorial over-reach?
Whatever the Metropolitan Police thought, they’ve rethought it today, announcing that they’re dropping for the time-being their request for a court order that the Guardian give up its sources.
With the perfect vision that comes with hindsight, it now appears that the court order was a bluff. As the Guardian reported yesterday, the Met did not consult the director of public prosecutions before wielding the Official Secrets Act, as the 1989 law requires. He was only consulted on Monday. In other words, the London police went rogue. If that’s the case, perhaps the goal of the cops was to give the Guardian and its journalists a fright and deter other reporters from investigating the pile-up of journalistic malfeasance, crimes by private detectives, corporate malfeasance at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corps., and, of course, bribe-taking by the Metropolitan Police.
But as all game theory enthusiasts know, a bluff—even an empty bluff such as the Met’s—can disturb the existing equilibrium and leave one’s opponent unsettled. The police may have calculated that the psychological damage done to journalists by requesting a court order would be worth the black eye the police might suffer for making it. But that’s giving the police too much credit for thinking ahead. If they had the skill to think ahead they would have prosecuted the phone-hacking cases back in 2007 when the evidence was fresh.
The Metropolitan police’s targeting of the press—like Rupert Murdoch’s decision to pay out $4.7 million in News Corp. guilt money to Dowler’s family and charity—indicates a frantic turn in the phone-hacking story. The police are now conceding they don’t really understand the law. And Murdoch is conceding that his now-dead newspaper, News of the World, committed the very crimes at the center of the scandal.