Britain’s biggest police force made a mistake when it cited the Official Secrets Act as it tried to force the Guardian to reveal information about the source of its phone hacking stories, the new head of Scotland Yard told MPs yesterday.
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe said he thought it had been a mistake, but the well-intentioned aim was to stop suspected leaks from a sensitive inquiry.
Officers were “honestly trying to carry out a very difficult investigation and they were trying to do it thoroughly”, he said.
Asked if he thought seeking the order was a mistake, Mr Hogan-Howe said: “I think it was. We got a lot of feedback that it was the wrong decision, so we changed, we stopped what we were doing and changed our decision, to be rewarded by headlines the following day that we had had a screeching U-turn.”
The force said it wanted to identify evidence of “potential breaches relating to Misconduct in Public Office and the Official Secrets Act”.
An officer working on Operation Weeting, the force’s investigation into phone hacking, was arrested in August on suspicion of misconduct in public office relating to the unauthorised disclosure of information. He has been suspended from duty and is on bail.
Hogan-Howe added that while the Official Secrets Act was mentioned in relation to possible offences, the application for production orders had been made under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.
Giving evidence to the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, he also defended his officers’ actions, saying the “focus of the attention was to stop the leak from the inquiry”.
Asked by Walsall North Labour MP David Winnick if the Met dropped its legal bid because the force “realised it was making a complete ass of itself”,Hogan-Howe said: “I don’t agree with your terms.
“It’s always easy afterwards to be very critical of other people’s decision. But I don’t think that’s a fair interpretation of a police officer who was working hard on an investigation.”
He added that lessons had been learned.
“We wouldn’t want a similar challenge to arise in the future,” he said.
“We have reviewed it in this case. I don’t anticipate we’ll be needing to make this type of order often. We’re all considering the results of our experience recently and I’m sure we don’t intend to make a similar approach.”
The commissioner said he had launched an inquiry to find the missing diary of former Met commissioner Lord Stevens, which is expected to contain details of his engagements as Britain’s top police officer between 2000 and 2005.
Hogan-Howe said: “I have asked to make sure that we carry out a very thorough investigation to find out where it is because sometimes things can get misplaced.”
The document, which may be in paper form or kept as an electronic record, may detail meetings between the former police chief and News International executives.
Lord Stevens said in his autobiography that he worked hard to foster good relations with newspapers, making himself “available” to editors including Rebekah Brooks at the Sun and Andy Coulson, then at the News of the World.
Tonight the force said the diaries, which covered February 2000 to January 2005, had been found.
Scotland Yard issued a statement saying: “They are a print out of his electronic diaries and paper diaries that cover the time before the electronic system was introduced.
“These documents will now be reviewed and be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.”
Home Affairs Select Committee chairman Keith Vaz said: “I warmly welcome the location of the former Commissioner’s diaries.
“This is an excellent start for the new Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, who only eight hours ago informed the Home Affairs Committee that he had launched a thorough inquiry into the whereabouts of these documents.
“I hope questions into meetings with News International executives can now be answered.”
Hogan-Howe added there were currently 30 inquiries into phone hacking allegations, saying: “We entirely understand why that is the case. What it does mean, in terms of the Met, is that all those different groups expect us to provide information. We’re quite happy to do so.”