September 16, 2011 8:26 pm

Met uses secrecy laws in leak probe

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Scotland Yard has invoked the Official Secrets Act to demand documents from reporters at The Guardian as it seeks to identify an officer suspected of leaking information about the investigation into phone hacking.

Officers served an order under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act to demand the production of journalists’ notes, emails and other documents, but have invoked secrecy laws to get around the fact that journalists’ sources are protected under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Two lawyers contacted on Friday said they could not recall the draconian act, designed to protect national security against acts of espionage, being used against journalists before.

The police action is designed to track down a suspected leak from within Operation Weeting, the Met’s investigation into hacking.

The demands relate to several stories published in The Guardian in recent months, particularly the revelation that Milly Dowler, the murdered Surrey schoolgirl, had her phone hacked by the News of the World.

That story led to a torrent of outrage against the newspaper and its parent company, Rupert Murdoch’s News International; the tabloid’s closure; the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of NI; and indirectly to the resignation of Sir Paul Stephenson, the Met commissioner, and Assistant Commissioner John Yates, his number three.

Detectives are seeking any documents relating to the stories, including communications between Guardian journalists, according to two people with knowledge of the order, served on the newspaper on Thursday morning.

Earlier this month, Amelia Hill, whose name has appeared on several phone hacking stories including the Milly Dowler article on July 4, was questioned under caution by molehunting detectives.

Nick Davies, the investigative reporter who first revealed that hacking at the News of the World was far more widespread than established by a flawed Scotland Yard investigation in 2005/06, is also a target, having co-written the Dowler article and most of the others on the list included in the order.

The Guardian said it would resist the Yard’s demands fully and intended to make representations at a hearing at the Old Bailey on September 23.

The order under Section 5 of the Official Secrets act was not issued by detectives from the phone hacking investigation, called Operation Weeting, but by a detective superintendent from the Yard’s professional standards unit, an internal affairs department which investigates leaks. Previous press reports indicated that Deputy Assistant Sue Akers, the head of Operation Weeting, had been determined to plug suspected leaks from inside.

A separate investigation, Operation Elveden, is looking into allegations that journalists from the News of the World paid bribes to Yard officers.

Tom Watson, the former Labour minister who has been prominent in exposing hacking by the News of the World, told The Guardian: “It is an outrageous abuse and completely unacceptable that, having failed to investigate serious wrongdoing at the News of the World for more than a decade, the police should now be trying to move against the Guardian. It was the Guardian who first exposed this scandal.”

The National Union of Journalists described the police move as “a very serious threat to journalists”. Last week, during a debate, Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, cautioned police investigating payments by News of the World journalists to police officers that they should not confuse that with off-the-record briefings by officers to reporters.

Metropolitan Police said in a statement: “Operation Weeting is one of the MPS’s most high profile and sensitive investigations so of course we should take concerns of leaks seriously to ensure that public interest is protected by ensuring there is no further potential compromise. The production order is sought in that context.

“The MPS can’t respond to the significant public and political concern regarding leaks from the police to any part of the media if we aren’t more robust in our investigations and make all attempts to obtain best evidence of the leaks.

“We pay tribute to the Guardian’s unwavering determination to expose the hacking scandal and their challenge around the initial police response.

“We also recognise the important public interest of whistle- blowing and investigative reporting, however neither is apparent in this case. This is an investigation into the alleged gratuitous release of information that is not in the public interest.”

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