Police are demanding that the Guardian newspaper reveal its sources for the story that reignited Britain's phone-hacking scandal, setting the stage for a court battle that comes at a tense time for relations between the country's media and its largest police force.
The Guardian said Friday that London's Metropolitan Police was seeking a court order that would force the paper to unveil source material for a handful of stories, including a July 4 article that revealed the now-defunct News of the World tabloid hacked into the voicemail messages of missing British schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered.
Police confirmed that they were seeking evidence connected to potential breaches of Britain's Official Secrets Act, which criminalizes the disclosure of state secrets and, in some cases, of police information.
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger condemned the use of the law, which is generally associated with espionage and national security issues.
"It's such heavy weaponry to be used over something that's not really about official secrets," he told The Associated Press. In a statement carried by his paper, Rusbridger promised to "resist this extraordinary demand to the utmost."
The Guardian has been at the forefront of reporting on Britain's phone hacking scandal, exposing Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid for routinely intercepting the voicemails of those in the public eye in its quest for scoops.
But it was the Guardian's report that the tabloid had violated the privacy of a teenage murder victim _ and risked interfering with a criminal investigation _ which most horrified Britons. The revelation sent shock waves across Murdoch's media empire and London's police force, both of which stand accused of trying to downplay the scandal.
The demand for source information comes at a particularly sensitive time for relations between media and law enforcement.
London's police force, known colloquially as Scotland Yard, has been stung by revelations that it repeatedly overlooked evidence of widespread illegal behavior at the News of the World _ apparently in a bid not to antagonize Murdoch's powerful media empire, which published the top-selling tabloid until it was closed down earlier this summer over the scandal.
Details of senior officers' professional and social links to Murdoch's newspaper arm _ including lunches and dinners with executives who later turned out to be suspects _ have also embarrassed police.
A new probe into the phone hacking allegations has since been launched, and two top officers from the Metropolitan Police have stepped down. On Thursday, the force's incoming commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, promised that he would work to redefine the relationship between police and the media.
Rusbridger told The Associated Press that, given the context, the police demand for source information was "ill-judged, certainly in PR terms, and in terms of the relationship that the Met is trying to reset with the media."
Last week, Rusbridger's paper revealed that Amelia Hill _ who was first with several breaking stories about the new phone hacking probe _ had already been called in for questioning over an alleged leak of information. Last month, police announced that an unidentified detective working on the investigation was arrested on suspicion of unauthorized disclosure of information.
The Guardian has not gone into detail about how Hill got her information about the Dowler case, or whether it involved the arrested detective. But Rusbridger told the AP that she had done nothing inappropriate.
Police said that the new phone hacking investigation _ code named Operation Weeting _ was one of its most sensitive and added that it couldn't take the "significant public and political concern" regarding leaks to the media into account unless it was "more robust in our investigations."
Guardian journalists said that without their paper's aggressive reporting, the phone hacking scandal which so embarrassed the police might have remained buried.
The London police force was careful to pay tribute to the paper in its statement. It said it was "not seeking to prevent whistle blowing or investigative journalism that is in the public interest, including the Guardian's involvement in the exposure of phone hacking."
Nevertheless, the police move caused consternation among free speech advocates. Index on Censorship's chief executive John Kampfner characterized the demand for source material as "a direct attack on a free press."
Michelle Stanistreet, the head of Britain's journalists' union, agreed.
"Journalists have investigated the hacking story and told the truth to the public," she said in a statement. "They should be congratulated rather than being hounded and criminalized by the state."
Raphael G. Satter can be reached at: http://twitter.com/razhael