Fleet Street lines up to condemn 'chilling' arrest of Met officer in 'plebgate' leak

  • Sun: Is Met trying to silence the media
  • Mail: Arrest is a chilling foretaste of a clampdown on the public’s right to know
  • Daily Mail's Littlejohn: Hogan-Howe has 'sent in the heavy mob at the crack of dawn to intimidate innocent journalists'
  • Daily Mirror: Whistleblowers 'should receive a medal and our thanks'
  • Guardian's Vikram Dodd: Leveson proposals make it harder to hold police to account
  • Hogan-Howe: 'There is more to this than meets the eye'

The arrest of a police officer accused of leaking information to national newspapers about former Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell's tirade at officers on Downing Street has been condemned across Fleet Street.

And as a series of damning editorials and opinion pieces were published in national newspapers this morning, Met commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe sought to defend the force - claiming people will be “quite surprised” when the full story of the arrest emerges.

The police officer, a constable in the Diplomatic Protection Group, was held on Saturday evening on suspicion of misconduct in a public office over the leak.

The story of Mitchell’s outburst, in which he is accused of calling a police officer a “pleb”, first emerged in The Sun and transcripts of what was allegedly said appeared later in the Daily Telegraph.

Today The Sun said in a leader that it was “clearly in the public interest” for the paper to reveal Mitchell’s rant, which forced him to “resign in disgrace”.

“But now a PC has been arrested by the Metropolitan Police as part of an investigation into leaking information about the flare-up,” the paper told readers, adding:

Why? Isn’t that over the top? And doesn’t it look as if the Met are trying to silence the media?

Whoever passed on details of Mitchell’s four-letter outburst was brave and principled.

Is that sort of public spirited action now to be a crime in the post-Leveson era?

The Daily Mail said the officer’s arrest was a “chilling foretaste of a clampdown on the public’s right to know”.

The paper insisted that while it “takes no sides in the dispute” over what exactly Mitchell said, it was “of great public interest that a senior minister stood accused, in an official police log, of behaving in an arrogant and foul-mouthed manner towards officers”.

It added:

Yet the unmistakable message sent out by Saturday’s arrest is that the public ought to have been kept in ignorance of Mr Mitchell’s tirade – no matter how much it may have revealed about his character or fitness for office.

There is no suggestion that the arrested officer asked for or received money for the information he is accused of leaking.

Indeed, with no element of corruption, it should be unthinkable for anyone to face the heavy-handed treatment of arrest for making such an incident public.

Emboldened by the Leveson Inquiry, however, the authorities are casting a shadow of fear over whistleblowers.

But without them, how will the public learn about the misdeeds of politicians  and officials?

The paper’s columnist Richard Littlejohn questioned why the Met felt it necessary to launch a full-scale investigation into the leak, a move already condemned by the Met Police Federation

Condemning Hogan-Howe’s handling of the phone-hacking arrests, Littlejohn wrote:

In pursuit of those involved in phone-hacking, he has sent in the heavy mob at the crack of dawn to intimidate innocent journalists and their families.

Only a handful have been charged, yet their lives have been turned upside down.

Seasoned crime correspondents have received menacing phone calls from anti-corruption officers demanding to know where they got their information. The Met even used the Official Secrets Act in an attempt to force a Guardian reporter to disclose her sources.

Within the Yard, officers speak of a reign of terror as the professional standards unit, under Deputy Assistant Commissioner Pat Gallan, seeks out anyone suspected of co-operating with the Press.

He accused the commissioner of embracing a “a little-noticed provision of the Leveson Report, which recommends that any officer who uncovers wrongdoing in the force should have to ring a dedicated police hotline rather than tell the Press”.

Littlejohn added:

How many other scandals will then be hushed up as a result?

You can be sure that neither Scotland Yard nor Downing Street would have disclosed any details of ‘Plebgate’ if someone hadn’t leaked it to the newspapers.

But if this wasn’t in the public interest, what is?

The Daily Mirror said that “exposing the shocking and reprehensible behaviour of elected representatives is demonstrably in the public interest” and that "it is difficult to ignore the suspicion that the Metropolitan Police, under its politically appointed Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, is shielding Downing Street in a case which smacks of protecting not the lives of properties of ministers, but their reputations.

It added:

“Whistleblowers who risk their jobs to expose the hypocrisy of Cabinet ministers should not be threatened with the sack or prosecution. They should receive a medal and our thanks."

The Guardian’s crime correspondent Vikram Dodd was also critical of the arrest in this morning’s paper, focusing on the wide chilling effect of some of Leveson’s proposals.

He said:

Two men in suits arranged to meet in a central London bathroom. One was a journalist, the other a police officer, who felt the bathroom rendezvous offered him the least chance of being seen. Documents were passed showing a cover-up and obstruction of justice by a multinational company, contrary to what it had been saying in public. It led to a story which was in the public interest.

If Lord Justice Leveson's suggestions had been in place – he frowns upon whistleblowing by police officers to the media – it is less likely this leak would have occurred. His report calls for all contacts between senior officers and journalists to be logged, making such meetings more risky for the officer. Non-disclosure could lead to officers being disciplined.

Dodd added that while “nobody is saying that officers who sell information deserve anything but punishment by existing law”, he feared that Leveson’s proposals will make it harder for the police to be held to account:

Leveson has put too little weight on the fact that what organisations say in public is not necessarily what is going on. Whistleblowers, or to give them another name, those who talk honestly and openly are a necessary counter to this.

Leveson has already failed to take on board sufficiently that Britain is overly secretive – the establishment's default position is that information should remain "confidential". For too many institutions in Britain, the duty to be accountable is discharged with honed PR lines. Leveson is wrong, and has missed an opportunity. Information belongs to the public.

Meanwhile, Hogan-Howe told LBC radio today that reports in the press were not “the whole story”, reports The Guardian.

“I hope when people hear the full story they will understand why I've had some dilemma in talking about it today,” he said, “We were quite surprised at what happened and I suspect they will be too.”

He added:

It's an ongoing criminal investigation, and also it's now supervised by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

I hope people understand that. And I also hope people understand that there is more to this than meets the eye. I'm afraid I'm constrained in explaining that. I hope that when people hear the full story they will support what we've done.

 

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