The commissioner of the Metropolitan Police has denied the suggestion his force misled journalists and the public over the extent of its spying on journalists as part of its Operation Alice investigation.
Press Gazette and The Times reported this week that the Met obtained the phone records of two further Sun journalists in addition to political editor Tom Newton Dunn as part of its investigation into leaks in relation to the Plebgate scandal.
The Operation Alice closing report, released in September, revealed that officers had grabbed the records of Newton Dunn and The Sun’s newsdesk under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act in order to find the source of its Plebgate story.
In November, Press Gazette asked the Met whether RIPA had also been used to obtain the phone records of The Daily Telegraph, which published a copy of logbook recording the incident with Andrew Mitchell at the gates of Downing Street in September 2012.
The Met denied it had targeted the Telegraph, and also released a press statement – and subsequent Freedom of Information Act disclosure – suggesting that the full extent of its RIPA use had been documented in the closing report.
It said: "As part of Operation Alice the MPS took the unusual step of publicising a summary report of this investigation. That report confirmed where RIPA applications were made to obtain call data from a media organisation.
"Our use of RIPA as part of Operation Alice is outlined in this report."
However, speaking at the London Assembly yesterday, Met commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe (pictured, Reuters) did not deny that other journalists had been targeted – and instead criticised reports that the force had misled the public on its use of RIPA.
On the Operation Alice document, Hogan-Howe said: “That report to some extent was redacted. We had to agree with the IPCC and CPS, and of course the senior investigating officer’s report does not include everything they did.
“I think in that case they interviewed about 1,100 police officers, he doesn’t name them. There are many things the report doesn’t capture. What it does capture is enough to substantiate the charges that are laid before the officer.
“Now what we’ve now been challenged with is that report, which we published counter to our policy, didn’t include they would say details of some journalists and some monitoring of their telephones. Which seems a bit odd to say we’re being secretive.
“The report was never going to be published. It was a senior investigating officer’s report, and it wouldn’t have always included the details it referred to anyway. So we think it’s an unfair criticism.”
He later described Newton Dunn as the “primary journalist in this case” and indicated that the Met would try not to disclose any further information.
He said: “What we will resist is then going through a list of people, 'did you surveil this person, did you use that authority against this person?'”
Hogan-Howe added: “Our broad view is it’s done in law, and that it was done appropriately. In any case in which we’ve used it.”
He said it was a “fair debate” to question whether there should be special rules for journalists with regards to RIPA applications, but said that was for politicians to debate. He added: “We would argue that under the present law we have used it appropriately.”
Hogan-Howe said: “I think one of the things society’s going to have to face is… there are things that we all have available to track each other now. You can track your child… taxi firms can find out where you are to send the nearest taxi to you. These are regarded as good things. But of course if the police do the same thing, it’s regarded as an intrusion into privacy.”
He added: “I think the harder for politicians and governments is going to be not necessarily whether you think journalists should be protected, but as soon as you provide some different system for them, what are you going to do about priests, teachers, where do you draw the line?”
Hogan-Howe also revealed to the Police and Crime Committee that the Met is in talks with news organisations about ensuring live coverage does not undermine their response to a future terrorist seige.
Speaking about the police response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, he said that "live coverage of an ongoing event" had been flagged up as an area of concern in the wake of events in Paris.
He acknowledged that such incidents are something that the "public wants to be informed about". But he said: "When police and security services respond we want to make sure our ability to respond is not restricted by live coverage and we are in ongoing discussions with the media about how that happens."