Hasty Copper and the Paper with Secrets

I keep reading expressions of anger that the Metropolitan Police sought a court order under the Official Secrets Act to uncover the Guardian’s source behind the phone hacking story (here, here, here, here, and here, to name but a few). I’m not convinced.

The Guardian, we are told by these writers, are the good guys. It was their revelation that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked which made the public aware of what had been going on and led to so much that followed in the public interest. It is even suggested that it was the Guardian’s reporting which led to the arrests that followed under Operation Weeting.

Really? The Guardian’s story about Milly Dowler’s phone was published on 4 July 2011. Operation Weeting began nearly six months earlier.

Was the Guardian the means by which the police became aware that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked? Quite the opposite. It seems that what the Guardian published was either a leak from the police or, at best, from another source, but a leak, nonetheless, of information which the police were already in possession of.

So, if the Guardian’s revelations assisted the police with their investigation, how exactly?

There’s no doubt that the Guardian triggered the public revulsion at what had been happening at News of the World. But was anything gained by expediting our revulsion? And who is to decide when the time is right to make that information public? Is it really the Guardian?

The Leveson enquiry has begun some of its work ahead of the criminal investigation being completed because the public outrage demanded that something be done sooner rather than later. But Leveson won’t be able to complete his work until all the prosecutions (if there are to be any) have been concluded. If the Guardian’s source was the police themselves, it seems unlikely that the leak assisted the police with their investigation. The contrary is more likely: the Guardian’s disclosures may even have hampered the police.

The Metropolitan Police Service has dropped its action against the Guardian because, so it seems, the law does not support the police’s position. Rightfully so. There are good reasons for allowing the press to protect their sources.

But this case doesn’t seem to be one of them.