8 Jun 2013

Met police chief Hogan-Howe on the rack over Plebgate leak

Could the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe lose his job over Plebgate? 

Senior Tories are becoming increasing tenacious in pursuing Sir Bernard over whether he himself leaked details of Scotland Yard’s report to the Crown Prosecution Service on whether police officers lied about what happened when the former chief whip Andrew Mitchell tried to cycle through the gates of Downing Street one evening last September.

The Sunday Times has now published extracts from a letter which Sir Bernard wrote to a senior Home Office civil servant in the last few days trying to reassure the official that he did not leak the thrust of the Scotland Yard report to reporters from broadsheet newspapers.  This letter was obtained by the senior Conservative MP David Davis under Freedom of Information.

On Thursday 28 March the Metropolitian Police sent a file to the Crown Prosecution Service updating the CPS on the state of its investigation into Plebgate, which is codenamed Operation Alice

Over the next 24 hours, both the Guardian and The Times published articles about the Operation Alice file which used almost identical wording. 

The Guardian crime correspondent Sandra Laville reported that the file passed to the CPS “contains no evidence that officers lied about an altercation with the former chief whip Andrew Mitchell”. 

The Times reporters Fiona Hamilton, Sean O’Neill and Billy Kember wrote that Scotland Yard investigation had found “no evidence that Downing Street police officers lied”. 

Andrew Mitchell described this apparent leak of the police file as “a dishonest and illicit attempt to blacken my name and destroy my career”.

It subsequently emerged that two and three days before these reports were published Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe held briefing meetings at which three of the reporters were present. 

Times reporters Sean O’Neill and Fiona Hamilton attended his briefing on Monday 25 March, and Sandra Laville from the Guardian came the following day, Tuesday 26 March. 

These briefings were not specifically about Operation Alice, but part of a series of meetings which the commissioner had arranged to improve relations with the media, and keep reporters informed on the whole range of the Met’s work.

In his recent letter to Stephen Rimmer, who is Director-General of the Home Office Crime and Policing Group, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe states: “It is not normal practice for me to see our investigative files and I can say categorically that I have not seen the file relating to Operation Alice.  

“Therefore, I was not in a position to brief on the contents.  I am briefed on the broad progress of an investigation, particularly the timetable and any significant resource implications.”

Interestingly, though, Sir Bernard never specifically states in his 500–word letter to Rimmer that he did not brief the journalists along the lines they reported.  Nor does he actually deny that they wrote what they did on the basis of what he said to them at the briefing meetings.  

Hogan-Howe does say however: “During the course of these two meetings I was asked questions on … the progress of Operation Alice.  In answering those questions I did say that I was concerned that if we did not conclusively prove what happened at the gate of Downing Street on 19 September this could result in reputational damage for all concerned.

“We could therefore be left in the position of having one person’s word against another.  I said that whatever we were able to establish about this incident, the Metropolitan Police would still suffer damage to its reputation if it was proved that an officer had lied about being present or if officers had leaked details to the press.  I was also asked when the MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] intended to submit a file to the Crown Prosecution Service.”

Sir Bernard also states in his report to the Home Office that the briefings with journalists “were held on the strict understanding that they were not for publication”.

Andrew Mitchell and his friends suspect not just that Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe was himself the source of the leak behind the Guardian and The Times stories, but that  he was guilty of “spinning” the story too. 

They argue that far from there being “no evidence” that police lied, there was plenty of evidence, much of it first revealed by Channel 4 News and Dispatches last December.  This evidence included emails from a serving police officer in which he falsely appears to have claimed to have been a member of the public who witnessed events. 

There is also a severe discrepancy between the police account of what happened that night, which suggested “several members of the public were present” outside the Downing Street gates, and the CCTV footage, which shows virtually no members of the public were there.

The political pressure on Sir Bernard is likely to mount in coming days, and could result in the third successive resignation of a Metropolitan Police Commissioner in only five years.  Sir Ian Blair quit the post in October 2008, and Sir Paul Stephenson in July 2011.

For a police officer to leak details of an ongoing police operation to journalists has become an especially serious offence in recent years, and one for which several policemen have been prosecuted.

Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe issued new guidelines to his own officers about their relations with journalists in May 2012.  Communications between the police and the Crown Prosecution Service are regarded as “restricted”, and therefore especially confidential, even in summary form.  The danger is that any leak of what the police have told prosecutors could easily prejudice any subsequent trial.

After the official report in 2011 by Elizabeth Filkin into relations between the police and the media, Sir Bernard said “There should be no more secret conversations.”   And he added: “There should be no more improper contact and by that what I mean is between the police and the media – that which is of a selfish, rather than a public interest.”

Sir Bernard is under particular pressure over Plebgate, not only because the officers in Downing Street belonged to the Met, but also because he gave a couple of radio interviews last autumn expressing confidence in his men, and saying he had seen nothing to doubt their account of events.

One of these interviews came within hours of the revelations by Channel 4 News and Dispatches which strongly suggested one or more officers had lied.  At a hearing in January, Sir Bernard was criticised by MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee over his handling of the affair.

The Conservative MP and former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, a close ally of Andrew Mitchell, is pursuing Hogan-Howe with a series of dogged requests under Freedom of Information.  Davis wants further details of the briefings to journalists and any evidence of what Hogan-Howe specifically said to them, and any written or audio records of the briefings.

And members of the Home Affairs Select Committee, chaired by Labour MP Keith Vaz, a long-standing personal friend of Mitchell, are likely to grill Hogan-Howe about the apparent leak when the police chief next appears before the committee.

The questions about Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe’s behaviour go alongside mounting frustration within the Mitchell camp that Operation Alice has made so little progress in discovering what happened.  After almost six months, no officer has yet been charged with any offence.

The matter will be raised on the floor of the Commons on Monday when another senior MP, Richard Ottaway, the Conservative who chairs the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, is due to asking the Home Secretary Theresa May “what progress is being made on Operation Alice, and if she will make a statement”.

The former Conservative Justice Minister Crispin Blunt recently said: “If it is true that Bernard Hogan-Howe has been briefing journalists off the record about a potential conclusion of a Crown Prosecution Service decision, then that would be outrageous and it would make his position untenable.”

We have asked the Commissioner for an interview but so far both he and the Met are refusing to comment further. 

However, as we will be able to reveal tonight, yet more political pressure may force Sir Bernard to explain exactly what was said in these meetings. 

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