Special Branch officer is cleared of leaking Manchester bomb suspect's name to media

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The Independent Online

A special Branch officer accused of leaking the identity of a prime suspect in the 1996 IRA bombing of Manchester to the media was cleared yesterday.

Detective Chief Inspector Gordon Mutch was alleged to have been disappointed about the RUC's decision not to arrest Declan McCann, 31, from Crossmaglen, South Armagh, when he disclosed the suspect's identity to a journalist, Steve Panter, from the Manchester Evening News.

The information was alleged to have been exchanged at a hotel in Skipton, North Yorkshire, where Mr Mutch, who headed the bombing investigation, had stayed at the expense of Mr Panter, then crime reporter and now assistant news editor of the newspaper, Manchester Crown Court was told. Mr Panter refused to reveal the source of his information, used in a front-page story in April 1999, although a judge had ordered him to do so "in the interests of justice".

Mr Panter will be ordered back before the courts, possibly today, though it is unclear whether he will face a contempt charge. In his defence, he will cite section 10 of the 1981 Contempt of Court Act, under which journalists have a right to protect their sources.

Det Ch Insp Mutch was three months from retirement, with a £100,000 lump sum and a £20,000-a-year pension, when he allegedly leaked the name. He said in evidence that it was "inconceivable" that he would risk such benefits by leaking information to a journalist.

He insisted his meeting with Mr Panter in February 1999 was to discuss the possibility of co-writing a book about the Moors murderer Myra Hindley.

Outside the court yesterday, the editor of the Manchester Evening News, Paul Horrocks, said the story was published two months after the article was first written and at the request of Greater Manchester Police several items were left out which may have hindered the investigation.

"But we finally published because we believed the people of Manchester had the right to know that police had identified the prime suspect, watched him on a return visit to Manchester but decided not to prosecute because that was the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service," he said.

"It was a story of very proper public interest ... it raised questions about his right to walk free from arrest."

Det Ch Insp Mutch, who denied a charge of misconduct in public office, is understood to have tried to retire before the case came to court but this had been prevented. It is thought unlikely that he will face disciplinary proceedings.

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