Prime Minister Theresa May and her top officials have been dragged into a bitter row over the freedom of the press after the Metropolitan Police warned journalists could be prosecuted for publishing diplomatic leaks.
The Cabinet Office last week called in Met Police assistant commissioner Neil Basu, who issued a warning to the media that the publication of emails sent by Sir Kim Darroch could be “a criminal matter”.
But a senior lawyer told the Sunday Telegraph Basu was merely trying to “protect the government from embarrassment” and accused the police of carrying out a “politically-motivated witch hunt” against publishers.
Tory leadership contenders Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson have also rounded on the police chief over his threats.
“I defend to the hilt the right of the press to publish those leaks if they receive them and judge them to be in the public interest; that is their job,” wrote Hunt in a tweet.
Johnson said any move to prosecute newspapers for the leak would be an “infringement of press freedom”.
A criminal investigation has been launched into the leak as part of a so-called gateway process following an internal government investigation led by the Cabinet Office.
It is the second major leak inquiry in recent months after Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill led an investigation into leaks from a national security meeting in April.
The inquiry, which centred on sensitive information about the UK’s approach to tech firm Huawei, led to the sacking of defence secretary Gavin Williamson.
But media law consultant David Banks said it was unusual for the Met Police to pursue newspapers for their reporting of leaks and accused Scotland Yard of overstepping the mark.
“I think that the Met called it wrong on this issue,” he told the BBC.
Basu has since issued a further statement saying the Met Police respected the rights of the media to publish stories in the public interest.
But he said Scotland Yard was responsible for upholding the law if it emerged the leaks constituted a breach of the Official Secrets Act, an offence that carries no public interest defence.
The investigation comes after the Mail on Sunday published leaked memos from Britain’s ambassador to the US, Sir Kim Darroch, which described President Donald Trump’s administration as “inept” and “uniquely dysfunctional”.
The newspaper this week reported that Darroch, who has since resigned his post, wrote that Trump abandoned the Iran nuclear deal as an act of “diplomatic vandalism” to spite his predecessor Barack Obama.
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