WE are in the middle of an epidemic of knife crime, while the country remains on alert for terrorist acts committed by Islamists and Far Right groups alike.
Police claim to be so overstretched that in some parts of the country they are refusing even to investigate 40 per cent of reported crimes.
Yet at the same time, the Metropolitan Police seem quite happy to commit resources to investigate the leaking of diplomatic cables which embarrassed Sir Kim Darroch, who, until his resignation last week, was our man in Washington.
Even more bizarrely, the Met has set its Counter Terrorism Command on the operation — yes, the unit that is supposed to spend its time stopping extremists blowing us up. It has threatened journalists, too, that they face prosecution if they dare to publish the content of the cables.
Trying to justify his threats, the Met’s Assistant Commissioner, Neil Basu, said he was sure the leaks had “damaged UK international relations” and on that basis no one publishing the leaks could plead a public interest defence.
What a ludicrous over-reaction to what is really no more than a diplomatic spat over the Ferrero Rochers.
Sure, it doesn’t exactly help UK/US relations when our Ambassador calls the President of the United States “inept” and his administration “uniquely dysfunctional”.
But I would say it is mildly less damaging than some of the things that the Leader of Opposition, the Mayor of London and Scotland’s First Minister have said about Donald Trump. I can’t see Mr Basu dangling his handcuffs in front of them — and neither should he.
IT'S NOT CRIMINAL
Obviously, Sir Kim has reason to feel aggrieved that someone — presumably in the diplomatic service or the Foreign Office, because there is no evidence of computers being hacked — has leaked information he intended to be private. But it is a matter for the Government to investigate, not the police.
How ridiculous Basu has said of the leaker: “You are now also responsible for diverting busy detectives from under-taking their core mission.”
No, Mr Basu — it is only thanks to your decision that officers have been taken off front-line duties to undertake this investigation.
You could have told officials what police officers are forever telling the rest of us when we report our houses broken into or our bikes stolen: Sorry, but we’ve got too much else to do.
It would be a different matter if someone had leaked material that really did harm national security.
The sort of information leaked by Kim Philby and his Soviet-sympathising accomplices in the 1950s put British lives at risk.
It is what helps the Press to keep in check corrupt or over-bearing politicians and public officials
But leaking and publishing a diplomat’s private thoughts hardly comes into that category. Mr Basu’s attack on the principles of the free Press echoes Operation Elveden, the failed attempt by the Met to criminalise journalists who had obtained information from police officers, in some cases for money.
The Met switched more than 60 police officers from other duties and arrested 90 people. The police probe cost taxpayers £14.7million and yet of 29 journalists charged, only one was convicted at trial — and that was quashed on appeal. Just one journalist, Dan Evans, pleaded guilty to an Elveden offence and was given a suspended sentence.
The prosecutions relied on an ancient offence, Misconduct in Public Office, which was only ever supposed to apply to public servants, not journalists.
As many lawyers, including the Lord Chief Justice, pointed out, it simply isn’t a criminal offence for someone to receive or to publish most forms of state information — only for a public official to sell it.
There is a very good reason for this. Leaks, and the freedom to put their contents into the public domain, are an essential ingredient of our democracy. It is what helps the Press to keep in check corrupt or over-bearing politicians and public officials.
Without the freedom to publish leaked information, for example, we would never have known the extent to which MPs and Lords were abusing their expenses regime.
That required a newspaper to publish information gleaned from a computer disk which had been stolen — but thankfully in that case the Met decided that the public interest over-rode a possible offence of handling stolen goods.
Without the Panama Papers we would never have known the extent to which wealthy individuals and corporations have gone into keeping their wealth out of the taxman’s grasp. Without the “climategate” leaks we would not have known how some climate scientists were prepared to manipulate past temperature records to support their theories.
It took a leak, too, to establish that the Blair government knew it was unlikely that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, but that George W Bush had resolved to overthrow Saddam regardless.
Then there was “Plebgate”, when a leaked police log revealed a bust-up between government chief whip Andrew Mitchell and police manning the gates at Downing Street — and led an officer to be jailed when it was revealed he had invented his witness statement.
There are, of course, plenty of other countries in the world where journalists would be locked up for publishing information that has leaked from the government, but they are not countries in which most of us would want to live.
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By over-reacting to what is an embarrassment to the Foreign Office, the Met has taken a leaf out of the book of President Erdogan of Turkey, who has locked up dozens of journalists as he attempts to suppress all opposition to his regime.
Neil Basu and other senior Met Police officers should back off and accept that the Press is quite within its rights to publish leaked information that does not threaten national security.
We are, after all, one of the world’s oldest functioning democracies — not a tinpot state where people get led off in chains for daring to reveal the truth.
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