A police report yesterday detailed how journalists’ telephone records were seized in order to track down the whistleblowers who revealed former Government chief whip Andrew Mitchell’s altercation with officers outside 10 Downing Street.
The Crown Prosecution Service found that three officers accused of directly and indirectly passing information to journalists did not deserve to be prosecuted for misconduct in public office. It said in a statement in November 2013 that the officers had a right to freedom of expression and that there was a public interest in the events of 19 September 2012 being made public.
But yesterday the Met Police revealed how the three officers were nonetheless sacked for gross misconduct – even though there is no evidence that any were paid for the information.
A fourth officer, Keith Wallis, was sentenced to 12 months prison on 6 February 2013 – but it was found that he had given a dishonest account of the incident to his MP, falsely claiming to be a member of the public who had witnessed it.
Mitchell is currently suing The Sun over a front page story published on 21 September 2012 which claimed he called officers “fucking plebs” because they refused to let him ride his bike out through the security gate of 10 Downing Street.
On 24 September 2012, The Daily Telegraph published a leaked internal police account of the incident which backed up The Sun story. Mitchell resigned from the Government the following month.
The Operation Alice report reveals that the author of The Sun story, political editor Tom Newton Dunn, refused to co-operate with officers, even though he was himself threatened with arrest for aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office. The case against him was thrown out by the Crown Prosecution Service.
He refused to give any information which might identify his source and said: “In my opinion this was an example of good faith whistleblowing about misconduct by a senior politician which was rightfully exposed publicly.”
The Met police nonetheless successfully applied for Newton Dunn’s mobile phone records in order expose his source.
The Met also successful seized call data to The Sun newsdesk in order to expose a second alleged police source.
The Operation Alice report reveals that PC James Glanville was arrested as a result of police analysis of Newton Dunn’s mobile records. Press Gazette has asked the Met for clarification, but it appears the records were released by Newton Dunn’s mobile phone network.
Glanville was on night duty on the 19 September when he overheard officers discussing the ‘Plebgate’ incident.
Analysis of his mobile phone has revealed that he “Googled” The Sun newspaper and then called the paper’s general number at 9.20pm. He spoke to Newton Dunn the following day and then recounted the incident to him.
Glanville has revealed that Newton Dunn asked if he had any documentary evidence. Glanville said he phoned PC Gillian Weatherley, one of the officers on the gate at Downing Street during the ‘Plebgate’ incident, and asked her if she had any paperwork relating to the incident.
She sent him a photograph of an email written by PC Toby Rowland’s which was a first-hand account of the incident.
Rowland said Mitchell told him: "Best you learn your fucking place. You don’t run this fucking government. You’re fucking plebs."
Weatherley insists she had no idea Glanville had talked to a journalist and said she sent him the document “for his eyes only”.
The Met Police also obtained PC Glanville’s call records from his mobile phone provider and found his contacts with The Sun Helpdesk number and Newton Dunn.
Officers also successfully applied for details of incoming calls to The Sun newdesk number made between 7.30am-9am on 20 September 2012 . It made the application after The Sun’s defence of the Andrew Mitchell libel claim revealed that someone describing themselves as a “tourist” had witnessed the ‘Plebgate’ incident and described Mitchell calling officers “fucking morons”.
Press Gazette understands that these records were obtained without the knowledge of Sun publisher News UK, apparently from a telecoms provider.
Further evidence then revealed that the call to The Sun newdesk had been made by a nurse who shared a house with PC Susie Johnson.
Johnson was also arrested on suspicion misconduct in a public officer and analysis of the laptop in her house revealed that she had carried out internet searches on 20 September 2012 for “The Sun” and “Michael Crick”, a Channel 4 journalist.
The CPS dropped the charges against PCs Johnson, Glanville and Weatherley.
Nonetheless Johnson, Glanville and Weatherley were all sacked from the police force after being found guilty of gross misconduct.
The National Union of Journalists has condemned the actions of the police.
General secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: "Instances like this amount to the outrageous criminalisation of sources who have taken the decision that information they are in receipt of deserves to come to the attention of the public. If whistleblowers believe that material they pass to journalists can be accessed in this way – without even the journalists and newspaper knowing about it – they will understandably think twice about making that call.
"The Met’s actions here have been to pursue witch-hunts of their own staff, with clearly not a jot of interest in the wider damage they are causing to public trust in journalism. It is an outrageous abuse of their position which needs urgent addressing.”
Executive director of the Society of Editors Bob Satchwell said: "This is another example of action which is rapidly waltzing us into a police state. It was clearly heavy handed misuse of power which was designed to fight terrorism not whistleblowing or journalists".
Chief executive of Index on Censorship Jody Ginsberg said: "The protection of journalistic sources is one of the bedrocks on which a free press – and therefore a free society – rest. Increasingly authorities are using investigative powers that are meant to be used only in cases of national security to undermine basic civil liberties – in this case secretly accessing the phone records of a newspaper reporter. It is a clear abuse of power."