By Jack Shafer
The views expressed are his own.
The Guardian, which kept the story alive after Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World minions, top politicians, and the cops throttled it, reports that the Metropolitan Police have requested a court order to force two of its reporters, Amelia Hill and Nick Davies, to surrender their confidential sources from their July 4 Milly Dowler phone-hacking story. Hill has already been questioned by police.
The Met is making its demand under the Official Secrets Act, which is usually invoked in national security cases. In 1985, Ministry of Defence employee Clive Ponting was prosecuted under the act for divulging information about the sinking of an Argentinean ship during the Falklands War. In 2002, counter-intelligence officer David Shayler was convicted of giving secret documents to a newspaper. In 2003, U.K. government employee Katharine Gun was charged under the act with leaking to a reporter email from the National Security Agency requesting help in bugging the United Nations offices of six countries.
But the act’s fine print also criminalizes leaks of “damaging” information by government officials that could impede the prosecution of criminal suspects. It’s through this window that the police hope to push their court order.
Although I’m appalled by the Met’s assault on the freedom of the press (as we ACLU sympathizers like to say), I’m mollified by the fact that after years of dilly-dallying, the Metropolitan Police are finally taking the phone-hacking case seriously—even if they are punishing a pair of reporters whose only crime is having uncovered long-term wrong-doing that the police previously entombed. The real criminals in the phone-hacking scandal are, of course, the newspaper editors and reporters who hacked phones or ordered them hacked; the private investigators who did the journalists’ illegal bidding; the newspaper executives (Rebekah Brooks? James Murdoch? Les Hinton?) who facilitated the crimes; and the police who, for reasons of self-preservation, pushed the scandal under the carpet.