* Police move raised fears for press freedom
* Police say they did not intend to target journalists (Adds reaction, background)
LONDON, Sept 20 (Reuters) - British police said on Tuesday they were dropping their bid to force a newspaper that led the coverage of a phone-hacking scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp empire to reveal its sources.
Leading journalists and lawyers had accused the London police force of attacking press freedom by seeking a court order to force Guardian reporters to disclose their confidential sources.
The Metropolitan Police said in a statement that, after taking legal advice, it had decided not to pursue, “at this time”, its application for the order which was due to be heard in court on Friday.
“Despite recent media reports there was no intention to target journalists or disregard journalists’ obligations to protect their sources,” the statement said.
The police have been investigating an alleged leak of information about the case by a police officer. They said the decision not to seek the court order did not mean they had ended the investigation.
The police denied they had sought the order under the Official Secrets Act, usually used in spying cases, as had been reported.
“I‘m massively relieved,” the Guardian’s investigative reporter Amelia Hill, who had been questioned by police about alleged leaks of information about the inquiry, told Reuters.
“It’s shown that they behaved completely inappropriately with unacceptable force and thoughtlessness,” she said.
British newspaper editors, in crisis after revelations of illegal phone-hacking and other ethical lapses, recognised on Tuesday that Fleet Street had to mend its ways but appealed to the government not to crush Britain’s cherished free speech with draconian laws.
The Guardian’s reports have helped keep the story at the top of the political agenda in Britain and played a part in forcing News Corp to close the 168-year-old News of the World, the tabloid at the centre of the scandal.
The story has pulled in Murdoch’s son James, forced News Corp to withdraw a bid to buy the part of pay TV group BSkyB it did not already own and shaken the British political establishment.
Britain’s most senior police officer and the top counter-terrorism officer also quit amid the furore.
The Guardian said the police wanted to find the source of information that led to the revelation in July that murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked.
The disclosure caused a wave of public anger which ultimately brought about the downfall of the News of the World and led to the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, the British newspaper arm of News Corp.
News International is expected to pay three million pounds ($4.7 million) to settle hacking claims by Dowler’s family against the News of the World, sources close to the issue told Reuters on Monday.
Reporting by Adrian Croft, Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Tim Pearce