After the extraordinary prominence given by the BBC this morning to a second former police officer making claims about Damian Green, let’s take a look at some of the facts about what we know and do not know about the case:
- The police should never have been in Green’s office in the first place. Don’t forget the original controversy. The Brown government hated the fact that Green was being leaked damning documents from inside Whitehall about their failures on illegal immigration, so counter-terrorist police were used to track down the leaker. In an appalling breach of Parliamentary Privilege, those police raided Green’s office as part of their investigation. They didn’t present a search warrant, and the Commons authorities, under the useless Michael Martin, failed in their duty and let them go ahead. Police on a mission to prevent further political embarrassment for the Government of the day, were seizing the documents and computer of an MP in dubious circumstances and on weak grounds. In the words of The Guardian, ‘[the] £5m, five-month police investigation collapsed after the Crown Prosecution Service said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute either man because the information leaked to Green on the government’s immigration policy was not secret and did not affect national security or put lives at risk.’
- The allegations made conflict with one another. Bob Quick, the first former officer to make allegations, told the Sunday Times the images on Green’s computer were ‘extreme’. That’s a term with specific connotations – ‘extreme’ pornography was legal at the time, but became illegal shortly afterwards. It seemed at the time of the Sunday Times report that this might be an attempt to imbue these moralising judgements of alleged legal behaviour with some kind of quasi-legal justification. Notably, Neil Lewis, the second former officer to speak out, directly contradicts this claim by Quick – saying the images he claims to have seen were not in fact ‘extreme’. He’s a former member of the Met’s obscene publications unit, so he would understand the difference.
- We don’t know why certain former police officers appear to be out to get Green. Personal animus, political animus, genuine moral concern, or some other reason – we just don’t know. But the goal seems quite clear: to unseat a Government minister. Lewis, today’s BBC interviewee, could have (and perhaps has) spoken to the Cabinet Office investigation, but he’s chosen to take to the airwaves to push one version of events in this way while that investigation is still underway. As an experienced police officer, you’d have thought his natural course of action would be to contribute what facts are in his possession to an investigating authority and await a verdict – but he’s pursuing tactics normally seen in political PR campaigns, while an official investigation is underway.
- This is a very concerning way for the police to behave. If we take Lewis at his word, there are two implications. The first is that Quick’s account of ‘extreme’ images is wrong, so this isn’t even hypothetically related to criminal law. The second is that this is therefore a moral question. Lewis is speaking out because he disapproves of what he claims he found. But on what authority is that his job, his responsibility, or his right? He gained access to that computer as a police officer, not as a self-appointed moral arbiter. The powers granted to police officers are given on the condition that they use them for specific purposes only. He was meant to be looking for evidence of crimes, not legal things which he could tut about. Separate to whether the Cabinet Office finds his or Green’s account to be true, is this really how we want former police officers to behave? If the police were to search your home or office or person, but fail to find evidence of any crime, is it acceptable that years down the line the officers involved could publicly embarrass you by claiming they found legal pornography, or anything else legal that they personally find morally icky? That’s an awful precedent, which would harm trust in the police and worry a lot of innocent people that private information might be being held over them. In a society under the rule of law we should all have a right to expect that the police do their job, but do not exploit their professional positions for personal grandstanding or moralising at a later date.
- Who does the data from a police investigation belong to, and is it ever really deleted? Lewis’s account of how he handled what he says he found is intriguing. The BBC report says ‘after the leaks inquiry ended he was ordered by the force to delete the data on the computer copies he had made. “Morally and ethically I didn’t think that was a correct way to continue,” he said. The officer erased the data, as instructed, but kept the copies knowing experts could retrieve the information if they had to.’ In practice, is there a difference between retaining data and deliberately retaining material that allows supposedly ‘deleted’ data to still be accessed? Furthermore, the BBC report says that ‘When he left the force…the only police notebook he took with him was the one he had used during Operation Miser’. If his normal practice with all his other notebooks was to leave them with the force when he left, on what basis did he take this one – containing sensitive notes of his work on police investigations – home? Is that allowed, given the normally strict rules on data protection, and the supposedly strict rules on police evidence? How many other former officers are there who take police notes at home after retirement and reserve the right to publish them to embarrass the people mentioned in their pages in future?
- We don’t know what Green did or did not do. Even after all this furore, we all still have no idea whether Green viewed pornographic images on that computer – he denies doing so, and that’s what the Cabinet Office is currently investigating. It’s important to remember that a formal investigation is underway, and that what we’re hearing so far is claim and counter-claim, not confirmed fact. Until there’s an official verdict, and we know what he did or did not do, there’s no way of passing judgement on his actions, or of scrying out his political future.
- This is another reminder about the importance of proper protections for liberty and privacy. There’s a fair deal of outrage among Green’s colleagues that the police might act in this way – and rightly so. We saw the same on Fleet Street when journalists were targeted with intrusive police powers, then left in a legal limbo on police bail, sometimes for years. But this isn’t just about MPs, just as the previous example wasn’t just about journalists. There’s a wider lesson about the need to ensure individuals’ privacy and liberty is properly protected. If someone like a Minister of the Crown can experience something like this, then you can be sure people with less influence, prominence and resources are far more vulnerable to abuses of power. Any MPs concerned about the way Green is being treated should think on the experience next time they are asked to approve further extensions in police investigatory powers and further restrictions on privacy – the idea such measures will never be misused is clearly erroneous.