The same department of the Metropolitan Police that secretly obtained the phone records of The Sun in its Plebgate leak investigation was tasked with finding the source of the BBC’s Sir Cliff Richard scoop.
The Commons Home Affairs Select Committee set up an inquiry after the BBC broadcast live images of Richard's home being searched by police under Operation Yewtree, which was set up in response to revelations about Jimmy Savile's child abuse.
- January 16, 2019
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Met Police assistant commissioner Martin Hewett wrote to the chair of the committee, Keith Vaz MP, to say that the Directorate of Professional Standards was investigating the allegation that the BBC’s story had come from a Yewtree source.
This came after South Yorkshire Police claimed BBC reporter Dan Johnson told them the source had come from within the Met Police operation. Johnson denied that he gave any details on the source of his story.
Details of the leak investigation have emerged as the Home Affairs Select Committee released a report on the incident, describing South Yorkshire Police as “inept”.
The report suggested the police should have refused to cooperate when the BBC revealed it had information about the proposed search of Richard’s home and explained to senior news executives at the corporation why broadcasting the story could have prejudiced the investigation.
The BBC, meanwhile, was criticised for its decision not to allow Johnson to appear before the committee. The MPs also did not accept the BBC's denial that Johnson told South Yorkshire Police that a person connected to Scotland Yard's Operation Yewtree was behind the original tip-off about the investigation into Richard.
The report said: “As we have already noted, the police records show that both the media department and the senior investigating office believed from their initial contact with Mr Johnson that his source for the story was somebody connected to Operation Yewtree.
“The chief constable confirmed that it was Operation Yewtree who had referred the investigation to South Yorkshire Police and that the approach from Mr Johnson came less than two weeks after that referral.
“This episode clearly points to a leak from within Operation Yewtree and it is therefore surprising that Chief Constable Crompton did not seek to contact the Metropolitan Police soon after the approach from Mr Johnson to alert them to the possible leak and invite them to investigate.”
The report included in it letters from Johnson – who said he refused to enter into any discussion with South Yorkshire Police about who his source was – and the force’s head of communications, Carrie Goodwin, who claimed the reporter had “explicitly” stated the story had come from Operation Yewtree.
Two letters from the Met’s Hewitt are also included. The first was dated 29 August – three days before the Met Police was roundly criticised for using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to grab the phone records of The Sun newsdesk and political editor, Tom Newton Dunn, in order to find the source of its September 2012 Plebgate story. It has since emerged that obtaining these phone records was the “very first thing” the Met did when investigating the leak.
Hewitt wrote to Vaz: “Any suggestion or speculation that the Metropolitan Police may have been responsible for the leak of information to the BBC about such a sensitive and live investigation causes me grave concern.
“This concern is shared by my officers who have responsibility for Operation Yewtree. They have worked for years to build trust amongst the survivors of abuse, giving many of them the confidence to speak out and report offences.”
He added: “The MPS was first made aware of the alleged leak, and the suggestion of Yewtree’s involvement on 15 August, the day after the televised search.
“Immediate clarification was sought from South Yorkshire Police and the BBC at that time regarding any potential involvement by staff working on Operation Yewtree.
“The answer we received from South Yorkshire Police’s Senior Investigating Officer gave us no further cause for concern.
“Given that there was no other information or intelligence to suggest that the source of the leak was from within Yewtree it was not thought to be necessary to carry out further enquiries at that stage.”
But he said: “On 27 August the chief constable of South Yorkshire Police put in writing his concerns that Yewtree may be the source of the original leak. I am now seeking to determine whether this was in fact the case.
“My team from the Directorate of Professional Standards are at the early stages of scoping this matter, and are liaising with both South Yorkshire Police and the BBC. I feel it is important to state that at this time it is too early to make any assertions about the source of the leak.
“If our enquiries reveal that Yewtree, or any other Metropolitan Police member of staff, is the source of the story to the BBC, then we will do all we can to identify them and hold them to account.”
On 2 September he wrote again to Vaz explaining that "my Officers have been liaising with both South Yorkshire Police, and The BBC, in order to test the veracity of the claim that Operation Yewtree staff were the origin of the leak to the journalist".
The report into Plebgate said: "An investigation was undertaken by the Directorate of Professional Standards – Specialist Investigations (DPS-SI) to find the source of this apparent leak under the operation name Operation Alice."
Press Gazette has asked the Met whether RIPA was used in this leak investigation.