LONDON - London's police force said Tuesday it was dropping a demand that The Guardian newspaper reveal the confidential sources for its stories about Britain's phone-hacking scandal. The decision follows a unified chorus of criticism from the country's hyper-competitive media outlets.
The Metropolitan Police said that after taking legal advice it "has decided not to pursue, at this time, the application for production orders" against the paper. The case had been due to go to court on Friday.
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger welcomed the decision to withdraw the "ill-judged order."
"We would have fought this assault on public interest journalism all the way," he said. "We're happy that good sense has prevailed."
The Guardian has been at the forefront of reporting on the hacking scandal, running stories that exposed the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World tabloid for routinely intercepting the voicemails of politicians, celebrities and even crime victims in its quest for scoops.
The Guardian said last week that police were seeking a court order that would force it to unveil source material for several stories about the scandal that has shaken Murdoch's media empire. It vowed to fight the demand, and rival papers joined it in condemning the police move.
The outcry was especially strong because the police demand referred to breaches of the Official Secrets Act, which is generally associated with espionage and national security cases.
The Murdoch-owned Times ran an editorial calling it "an attack on the principles of free expression," and right-wing Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn — an arch-foe of the left-leaning Guardian — said the police action "isn't just an attack on the Guardian, it's an attack on us all."
Civil libertarians, free-speech advocates and victims of phone hacking also expressed outrage. Actor Hugh Grant, who has become an outspoken campaigner against tabloid intrusion, called the police action "worrying and deeply mysterious."
The stories in question included a July 4 article that revealed the News of the World had hacked into the voicemail messages of missing British schoolgirl Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered.
That revelation horrified Britain, and sparked the still-unfolding scandal. Already, the 168-year-old newspaper has been shut and several top executives from Murdoch's News Corp. have been ousted.
The furor also has tarnished London's police force, which failed to uncover the scale of the tabloid's wrongdoing in its initial investigation. The force's chief and one of his most senior lieutenants resigned in July amid allegations of too-cozy professional and social links to Murdoch journalists.
A police officer has been arrested on suspicion of passing information about the force's hacking investigation to The Guardian, and one of the newspaper's reporters, Amelia Hill, has been questioned by detectives about the alleged leak.
Rusbridger said that "threatening reporters with the Official Secrets Act was a sinister new device to get round the protection of journalists' confidential sources."
But Scotland Yard said it Tuesday that it was only the arrested police officer who was suspected of breaching the secrets act; the demand against The Guardian was made under another law, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.
It said in a statement that "despite recent media reports there was no intention to target journalists or disregard journalists' obligations to protect their sources."
The force said it remained committed to its ongoing phone hacking investigation, code-named Operation Weeting. So far detectives have arrested more than a dozen former News of the World journalists and executives on suspicion of eavesdropping or bribing police officers. None has been charged.
Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://twitter.com/JillLawless