It is a year today since Operation Alice, the investigation by the Met into the Andrew Mitchell affair, was launched: 30 police officers were apparently put on the case. Yet it has failed to produce a report: 12 months is apparently insufficient time to probe an incident lasting some 45 seconds. Here are some more figures relating to the case. Six people are reported to have been arrested, four of them police officers, four of them from the Diplomatic Protection Unit. Four members of the unit are undergoing disciplinary proceedings. Three members of the Police Federation are being investigated by a separate inquiry for alleged misconduct over comments they made to the media.
Now let's turn from figures to facts – and the meticulous investigative journalism of Michael Crick. A witness who e-mailed his MP backing up the claims about Mitchell in the police log said later when questioned by Crick that he "wasn't a witness to anything". He had also failed to tell the MP that he is a serving police officer. As Crick also reports, "according to the leaked police logs there were "several members of the public present – around the gate – they heard the altercation and were 'visibly shocked'. What this CCTV shows is that there are no crowds of people watching and listening".
Viewers of the footage will decide for themselves whether – as Mitchell wheels his bicycle towards the pedestrian entrance to Downing Street without visibly engaging with an accompanying policeman – he actually said the words attributed to him: "best learn your f*****g place. You don't run this f*****g Government. You are f*****g plebs". I agree with Crick that the tape "doesn't really seem to support this version". But whether one shares this view or not, the facts of the case are clear. There is no evidence that Mitchell said the words attributed to him other than the police log. That log has been proved to be not fully accurate. And an account backing it up has proved to be false.
Mitchell admits to having sworn in front of – not at – the police officer in question, saying "I thought you guys were here to f*****g help us". He shouldn't have done so. But it would be wrong to dismiss a Minister for swearing in the presence of a policeman. This isn't a solitary or even an unusual view. That Mitchell's sacking was unmerited and that the police account is unreliable has been supported by Sue Cameron, Matthew D'Ancona, Robert Harris, Simon Heffer, Michael Howard, Owen Jones, John Kampfner, Simon Kelner, Charles Moore, Matthew Parris, John Rentoul, and Steve Richards (among others) – as well, this week, as Chris Mullin and Ken MacDonald, the former Director of Public Prosecution and, today, Jack Straw.
That list is a reminder that Mitchell has supporters and friends. He will never go hungry. There have been worse injustices. But in one respect his treatment was almost unimaginably terrifying: those who haven't been at the centre of a media storm will find it hard to think their way into what the experience is like. Mitchell has told friends that it was "like being a hunted animal" – rather a harsh consequence for saying the F-word in front of a policeman. But there is a more important point at stake. As Harris put it: "If this can happen in the heart of Whitehall, to a senior Government Minister, then most assuredly it can happen to any one of us, anywhere".
Our experience helps to shape us. I have never known a policeman that I didn't like. Modern policing is stressful and sometimes dangerous work, of which the list of policemen and women murdered in duty is a reminder. They put their lives on the line for the public, and deserve our support. So I am still surprised when police officers are found to have acted wrongly – after the Stephen Lawrence murder, the Jean Charles de Menezes shooting, at Hillsborough, and so on. And I find it hard to believe that of England's 39 chief constables or commissioners, in the sober words of Andrew Gilligan, "seven have been sacked for misconduct, suspended,
placed under criminal or disciplinary investigation or forced to resign.
That is not far off a fifth of the total".
Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Met's Commissioner, said at the start of Operation Alice that he believed the police officers concerned were telling the truth – a conclusion that was inappropriate, not to mention questionable. Crick has also reported claims, which Hogan Howe denies, that the latter briefed journalists inaccurately about the investigation. As Lord MacDonald wrote yesterday: "if it turns out that the
career-killing use of “pleb”, that lethal, single-syllabled Exocet, was
fabricated, as Mr Mitchell has always claimed, it will be certain that the
missile is heading straight for the heart of the Metropolitan Police".
But whatever happens next, three points are clear. First, Operation Alice may drag on indefinitely, denying closure either to Mitchell or his accusers. Second, there is no reason for David Cameron to wait for it to finish, and every reason for him to make amends for the botched investigation into the affair carried out by Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary. The third is that the libel action being undertaken by Mitchell against the Sun cannot prove the former's innocence or guilt – only whether a libel has or has not been committed, which is a different matter. The case against Mitchell is discredited. An injustice has been done to him. He should be returned to the Cabinet at the first opportunity.