As Lord Northcliffe, the inventor of modern popular newspapers, rightly said: ‘News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress.’ And as George Orwell, the great foe of censorship, thought policing and humbug, said: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people things they do not want to hear.’
It is also worth remembering – since the current row over freedom to publish concerns our links with Washington – that one of the founders of the USA, Thomas Jefferson, a man often ferociously attacked in the press, still said he would rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers. And that America’s greatest journalist, H.L. Mencken, stated that, for the health of democracy, the proper relationship between journalists and government should closely resemble the relationship between a dog and a lamp-post.
Most wise people in free countries understand and accept the good sense in these attitudes.
So there is something sinister and disturbing about a police officer, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, issuing threats of prosecution against newspapers which publish government leaks. It is also disturbing that the investigation into how the information may have got out has been given to the Counter Terrorism Command.
No doubt if the information concerned had been nuclear secrets, the designs of fighter planes, naval codes, or the names of intelligence agents in dangerous foreign parts, the disclosure of such things would indeed be comparable to the preparation of terrorist murder.
But the escape into the light of day of an Ambassador’s letters home does not fall into this category. There are of course perfectly good arguments for such things remaining confidential. But they have nothing to do with spying or national security, the areas which the Official Secrets Act was drawn up to deal with.
The Act, rushed into existence without much consideration, has since repeatedly and rightly run into considerable trouble in court when attempts have been made to use it to cover up or revenge government embarrassment rather than to protect real national secrets. Sensible governments have preferred to use it sparingly.
Assistant Commissioner Basu may have been rash to say, portentously: ‘The publication of leaked communications, knowing the damage they have caused or are likely to cause, may also be a criminal matter.’
No doubt it can be claimed that The Mail on Sunday’s report last week, which disclosed some of the diplomatic messages sent by our Washington Ambassador, had some troublesome effects. President Trump took it as an opportunity to try to damage our envoy.
His intervention ignited a controversy in high politics here which embroiled both candidates for the Tory leadership and Nigel Farage. The Ambassador himself, Sir Kim Darroch, chose as a result to quit his post a few months early.
But to describe these events as national damage, as if they had exposed us to enemy attack or allowed a terror suspect to escape, is putting the matter very high. The early departure of an envoy – by his own choice – and some rude tweets by the US President, do not really amount to national peril.
So Mr Basu’s warnings, and the heavy-handed reaction to the case by the former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, are both equally unwelcome.
Sir Michael’s declaration that the leak is a ‘clear breach of the Official Secrets Act’ raises the question of how, in that case, he would respond to an actual instance of espionage. Perhaps he might favour the reintroduction of drawing and quartering.
In contrast, the unequivocal pro-freedom remarks by the former Chancellor George Osborne, now editor of the London Evening Standard, are very much to be applauded. Mr Osborne, despite years at the centre of government, has not been seduced (as too many are) into the sort of stiff-necked, pompous power-worship which cannot tolerate a truly free press in operation.
Mr Osborne urged Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick to disavow her subordinate, saying: ‘If I were the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and I wanted to maintain my credibility and the credibility of my force, I would quickly distance myself from this very stupid and ill-advised statement from a junior officer who doesn’t appear to understand much about press freedom.’
It would be hard to find the argument better put.
Boris Johnson, the man most likely to be our next premier, was similarly tough, saying: ‘It cannot conceivably be right that newspapers or any other media organisation, publishing such material, face prosecution.
‘In my view, there is no threat to national security implied in the release of this material.
‘It is embarrassing, but it is not a threat to national security. It is the duty of media organisations to bring new and interesting facts into the public domain. That is what they are there for.’
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, whose department has felt the full effects most strongly, was understandably concerned about his staff. But he was also commendably staunch in the defence of the press, saying: ‘These leaks damaged UK/US relations and cost a loyal ambassador his job so the person responsible must be held fully to account.
‘But 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.’
Equally encouraging was Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who has no great reason to love the media but still found the generosity and spirit to stand up for liberty.
He said: ‘We value greatly press freedom and therefore I don’t think it is appropriate for the police to be threatening newspapers, journalists or broadcasters. There is always that balance between the public good and government action. Often the government action is not necessarily to the benefit of the country overall. That is what journalists are there to point out.’
For once, The Mail on Sunday can agree with Mr McDonnell.
In a pluralist society, interests can and do clash.
But to stand up for your own interests, or to pursue and publish portions of the truth which others would rather keep secret, is not an act of disloyalty or treachery, to be suppressed by prosecution.
Far from it. It is a proper exercise of necessary freedom.
Incidentally, the material which The Mail on Sunday publishes today shows Boris Johnson – who has been derided recently as a lightweight by his enemies – taking a highly cautious and responsible view of the USA’s militant Iran policy. And it reveals private British doubts about the way things are going in this confrontation.
And here is a very important point. President Trump’s decision to pull out of Barack Obama’s Iran agreement has set the world on a risky and unpredictable course, which has already embroiled Britain in the seizure of a tanker off Gibraltar and a tense armed confrontation with Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Strait of Hormuz.
The British people are entitled to know about the high-level disagreements between Western allies on this issue.
It is the readers of newspapers, not the powerful, whose sons and daughters will be in the warships, aircraft and military units which may well be drawn into this conflict.
It is the readers of newspapers who will pay the taxes which will need to be imposed to pay for any such conflict, and who will endure the inflation and economic uncertainty which that conflict will bring.
There can be no serious argument, in a free democracy, that the act of helping the people to be better informed should be a matter for the police, who after all keep telling us that they already have too much to do and too few staff with which to do it.
It is absurd, if not actually ridiculous, that a truthful and accurate leak of significant material, enabling the voters of this country to be better informed and to make better choices, should be met in Whitehall and in Scotland Yard by threats of arrest and prosecution.
Freedom of the press and of speech in general have been in retreat in recent years, for many reasons.
The police themselves, who once readily accepted the co-operation of the media as a useful tool in fighting crime, now all too often treat the free press with cold suspicion, and even attempt surveillance of reporters. This episode shows that this process has now gone quite far enough.
By rejecting suggestions of prosecuting the media, as we very much hope they will, our leaders will demonstrate firmly in practice that freedom has shrunk quite enough in this country, and now needs to be restored and encouraged, not threatened with arrest.