Matthew Norman: The Met chief's error was elementary

The real story here is not one of a threat to press freedom but one of monumental police stupidity

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The Independent Online

In investigating The Case of the New Met Commissioner And The Official Secrets Act, it is with an overquoted Sherlock Holmes dictum that we must begin. "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

So then, Watson, do fill your pipe and settle by the fire while I restate the facts. Within a few days of Mr Bernard Hogan-Howe being appointed the highest policeman in the land, the Metropolitan Police declared its intent to prosecute the Guardian newspaper under the Official Secrets Act, to compel it to reveal its police source for reports concerning the hacking of telephones.

Now, is it conceivable that Mr Hogan-Howe, who has still officially to take up his post, knew nothing of this? What's that, Watson? You suspect he was enjoying a freebie at Champneys at the time? Come, come, my old friend, you have his predecessor in mind. Besides, he has been the Met's Deputy Commissioner since July, while no such initiative could be taken in an organisation famed for its buck-passing without the express approval of its newly appointed leader.

Indeed, recalling that Mr Hogan-Howe has an Oxford MA in law, we may even speculate that the idea was his ... that some half-remembered tutorial on the Act flashed to mind as he pondered how best to make an instant splash. Did he hurriedly search that Act for spurious justification, alighting on the clause dealing with "inciting" officers to disclose confidential information? No lawyer could have made so grotesque a howler, as analysis by the learned likes of Mr Geoffrey Robertson QC makes plain. But a man who dabbled in academic law some three decades hence might, in his ignorance, have stumbled into just such a fiasco.

Having established the certainty that he at the very least acquiesced in this plan, we must ask ourselves what on earth he had in mind. Was the deployment of the Official Secrets Act a subconscious tribute to the cinematic release of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy? This, Watson, is absurd. He may have been distracted fighting the gangs of Liverpool. Yet however busy dealing with the Nogga Dogs and Crocky Crew he was, he must have noticed that the Cold War ended.

Was his ambition to yoke the entire British press, from the liberals at The Independent to the more trenchant Mr Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail, in a rare show of unity? Since that unity is expressed in furious condemnation of the Met, and in defence of the human right to broadcast leaked information in the public interest, this too is unconscionable.

Did he hope to satirise the very notion of the state interfering with the press, provoking such ridicule with this attempt to subvert a human right that no government would touch the issue of regulation in a generation? Of course not. Unrestricted reporting of failure and misdemeanour in public bodies is hardly to the advantage of our splendid police.

Or is he Bernard Trojan-Horse ... a sleeper who inserted himself at the apex of British policing in order to incinerate whatever scraps of residual trust the Met retained after the pictures of officers standing quietly by watching the looters at work so beautifully mirrored its role as casual observer of News of the World wrongdoing? Once again, Watson, no. He will have been vigorously vetted as he rose through the ranks, and any crypto-anarchist tendencies must, perforce, have been discovered.

So then, Watson, having deduced that he must have approved the scheme, and that his motives can have been neither to unite the entire press against him nor to sabotage the force he leads, we have eliminated the impossible. All that remains, however improbable (ha-ha-ha), is that Mr Bernard Hogan-Howe is an imbecile of a very rare order indeed.

His imbecility rests not on what we may, in perfect safety, assume to have been his twin intent. Evidently, he meant both to send a brutal warning about leaking to his officers, and vindictively to pursue the newspaper that led the way in exposing not only the criminality at News International, but the Met's quasi-criminal negligence in failing to investigate it.

None of that does him much credit, but given that his stock epithet is "no-nonsense copper", it does at least make sense. Where he strayed into sub-sub-sub-Alice In Wonderland nonsense was in failing to anticipate the inevitable response.

The real story here is not, for all the mildly hysterical articles highlighting such a menace, one of a threat to press freedom. There isn't one, because there isn't an earthly of an Official Secrets Act case being brought, and never was. One can imagine such a travesty under New Labour, with its autocratic nastiness and need to hug the police close as it set about dismantling civil liberties. But the most engaging thing about this Coalition is its healthily libertarian instinct, and there isn't a scrap of political will today to indulge the Met in a deranged displacement activity designed to deflect attention from its collusion with Mr Murdoch by attacking those who exposed the corruption in the first place. If the Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, hasn't already put a stop to this craziness, he will do so soon.

The real story, albeit hardly Lenor-fresh, is of monumental police stupidity. It would be unfair to blame Mr Hogan-Howe and London's finest for failing to predict how this would develop over the course of months. They couldn't foresee how it would play out in the three minutes after it was announced.

Ask the thickest cadet in Hendon police college about the wisdom of applying the Official Secrets Act to luminescently legitimate reporting, and that remedial student of Kettling Studies would mutter, "But, guv'nor, isn't it supposed to catch spies?" Constable Savage, the Not The Nine O'Clock News pastiche of constabularly dimness carpeted for nicking suspects for stepping on cracks in the pavement, would have seen the flaws in an instant.

"Public confidence is paramount for any police force and Bernard Hogan-Howe has the impressive track record to restore confidence," was how Boris Johnson celebrated the appointment. "He has made it clear that this will be a new, more transparent era for the Met." A-ha. So how's that transparency-confidency thing working out for ya, Mr Mayor?

In the fictional world of yore, a private detective was on hand to protect Scotland Yard from its cluelessness. In the real world of today, my dear Watson, it is no longer a secret, official or otherwise, that the Met has been saddled with another schtummer... and no three-pipe problem to discern that the only reason not to demand Mr Hogan-Howe's resignation is uncertainty over whether it's technically possible to resign from a job one hasn't yet formally taken up.