Former chief whip Andrew Mitchell said it should have been “obvious” to The Sun that police officers who leaked the Plebgate story “had a serious axe to grind in wanting to smear a Government Minister”.
The Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield is suing over the September 2012 story and, in his latest submission to the court, described the newspaper’s defence as “manifestly unsustainable and doomed to fail”.
The Plebgate scandal erupted on 21 September 2012, when The Sun’s front page story claimed Mitchell had called police officers on the gates of Downing Street “fucking plebs”.
Mitchell first filed his libel action for up to £150,000 last March. The Sun “vigorously” defended the claim in court two months later claiming that all facts were “true in substance and in fact”. It also outlined a “responsible journalism” defence.
Last month, after numerous court hearings in the case, The Sun filed an amended defence which included a number of new allegations against Mitchell, including that he referred to a police officer as a “little shit”. Separately, the police officer, PC Rowland – who Mitchell is accused of swearing at – is suing the MP for £200,000 for slander after the MP called him a liar at a press conference.
Last month, Press Gazette revealed that as part of its investigation into Plebgate leaks, the Metropolitan Police secretly obtained the phone records of The Sun newsdesk and political editor Tom Newton Dunn – as well as officers involved in the case – in order to find the source of the story.
In his amended reply, Mitchell claims The Sun’s story is “neither defensible as true, nor as the product of responsible journalism”. Mitchell has always denied using the “poisonous and grossly offensive remarks” attributed to him.
In his latest court submission, Mitchell criticised the “unequivocal and emphatic nature” of the Plebgate accusation, the omission of the words “alleged” and “suspected” from the story, and the way it was presented on a “screaming front page” with “screaming 3 inch-high bold lettering”.
He has also accused the paper of running a “sustained campaign of vilification” against him, highlighting the fact he was described in the paper as “Villain of the Week” and a cartoon “depicting him with his ‘pants on fire’ and an extremely elongated ‘Pinocchio’ noise”.
He revealed in the reply that in the three days following The Sun story, he “received hundreds of abusive and threatening emails from members of the public”.
Mitchell said that he had always denied the allegations against him and he condemned the newspaper for standing by its story when, he said, CCTV footage of the Downing Street gates at the time of the incident is “fatally inconsistent” with an email account of the incident Rowland sent to a senior officer.
He also said that a “passer by’s email, purporting to be from an independent eye-witness, has been conclusively shown to be a fake” and from another officer.
Public interest defence 'equally hopeless'
Claiming the publisher cannot rely on truth in its defence, Mitchell said the public interest defence is “equally hopeless”.
In the court papers, he highlighted Newton Dunn’s (below) comments on Newsnight in October 2012 when he described the Plebgate story as a “hugely serious allegation” and “hugely defamatory if you get it wrong”.
The court papers said: “Since it was so hugely serious and so hugely defamatory if wrong, and [The Sun] plainly regarded it as such, it was therefore heavily incumbent upon the newspaper to ensure that the allegation was correct before publishing it to its readership of millions, or at the very least to take every step it could to ensure that it was so.”
Mitchell denied this was done. He described the story as “neither thorough, fair nor reasonable”, accusing the newspaper of failing to independently verify the details.
He also said it was published with “unreasonable enthusiasm to convict” him and that “the newspaper’s whole-hearted adoption of the allegation was entirely one-sided in favour of the police’s account”. He said the story was “blatantly unfair and irresponsible”.
In the original defence, The Sun said the story was based on two unsolicited telephone calls – one of the evening of 19 September, and one on 20 September. It said neither caller sought or was offered payment.
Both callers originally spoke to reporters. The first, who claimed Mitchell had used the words “fucking plebs”, was then passed on to speak to political editor Newton Dunn.
“Of course, it was obvious that these police officers had a serious axe to grind in wanting to smear a Government Minister,” Mitchell's amended reply said.
“[The Sun] was well aware… the police were vigorously fighting to stop the Government’s cuts to its funding.
“It was, or should have been, clear therefore to [The Sun] that transforming a relatively tame incident involving a disagreement one evening between the Chief Whip and one of the officers at the Downing Street gates into a ‘foul-mouthed rant’ by an arrogant and angry senior Tory minister, would be a very effective opportunity to fulfil the agenda of an organisation that was seeking any possible support from members of the public in its fight against the Government.”
Mitchell said the fact that one of the paper’s sources said they wanted Mitchell “named and shamed” should have “sounded alarm bells”.
Mitchell has asked the court to “infer” that Newton Dunn had initially intended to use Rowland's email account of the incident in his story but instead passed this on to The Daily Telegraph at a political conference. The MP claimed this was an indication that the journalist was “(rightly) extremely worried about the reliability of this document”.
He said The Sun should have been “extremely cautious about whole-heartedly adopting an accusation made by the police as the basis for a front page story” because it had recently apologised for its infamous Hillsborough front page.
“The truth is that in the course of a potential political storm the police had deliberately manufactured an allegation in order to serve their own agenda,” the reply said.
“In the circumstances, the Hillsborough apology should have sounded a particularly fresh and painful note of caution in the mind of a responsible journalist, who was seeking to publish a front page story based on an unverified police source with an obvious axe to grind and in the fact of the denials from the subject of the story himself.”
The Sun said in its defence that Newton Dunn shared the claims, including quotes, with the Prime Minister’s director of communications in Downing Street, Craig Oliver. It is claimed that Newton Dunn also texted Mitchell asking him to call back urgently.
The Sun claims Mitchell did not respond to Newton Dunn, instead releasing a statement through Oliver. It said: “On Wednesday night I attempted to leave Downing Street via the main gate, something I have been allowed to do many times before. I was told that I was not allowed to leave that way. While I do not accept that I used the words that have been reported, I accept I did not treat the police with the respect they deserve. I have seen the supervising Sergeant and apologised, and will also apologise to the police officer involved.”
According to The Sun, Oliver told Newton Dunn that Mitchell denied using the specific words “fucking plebs”, but “would not deny this on the record”.
But Mitchell said in his amended reply he “denied from the outset that he had ever used these toxic phrases” and claimed colleagues such as a Conservative spokesperson had denied the allegations to the paper before publication.
Mitchell said it was “heavily incumbent” on The Sun to “pitch its story at an appropriate and fair level, and to couch any allegation against [him] in suitably cautious and measured terms” because of the alleged issues with its sources, the denials, a lack of official confirmation from the police and “independent verification”.
Mitchell said the story was reported in a “sensationalised” manner in which is was “acting as judge and jury on the incident, inexorably convicting” him.
“The truth is that this was too good a political story not to publish for the newspaper (or to publish in a much more balanced and fair manner), and worth the risk of getting it wrong.”
Mitchell's version of events
Mitchell’s version of the Plebgate story is:
- That on leaving Downing Street on 19 September 2012, after “a series of difficult meetings with a number of disappointed colleagues after the cabinet reshuffle”, he was running late for an engagement and once stationary on his bicycle “politely asked” police on the Downing Street gates to open them
- They refused, telling him he would have to dismount his bicycle and leave via the side pedestrian gate
- Mitchell said: “Please open the gates. I am the Chief Whip; I work at number 9 [Downing Street]”
- After being forced to use the pedestrian gate, Mitchell said “out of frustration” and “muttered under his breath”: “I thought you guys were supposed to fucking help us”
- Rowland, who heard this, warned him: “If you swear at me I will arrest you”
- Mitchell then “may have said words to the effect that he would pursue the matter the next day”.
Mitchell has admitted that he “became frustrated”, but denied that he “lost his temper” or that he “demanded” to be let out of the main gates.
He also denies using the words: “Best you learn your fucking place… you don’t run this fucking government… You’re fucking plebs.”
Mitchell claims that Rowland “fabricated… assertions in his pocket book” and “composed his story of the incident in the form of an email” to his superiors. According to Mitchell, this was after discussions with various colleagues.
Mitchell said that one of Rowland’s colleagues, PC Glanville, phoned the newsdesk of The Sun with the story on an anonymous basis and said he wanted Mitchell “named and shamed”.
In the amended reply, Mitchell then refers to a number of communications – calls and text messages – between various officers.
The amended reply claims that the next morning another officer, PC Johnson, “procured her girlfriend” to call the newspaper anonymously pretending to be a “tourist” who had witnessed the incident.
Mitchell said deputy chief whip John Randall was emailed by PC Wallis, another colleague posing as a constituent, making the same claims.
Mitchell said he shared this with another colleague, PC Johnson, for approval. She allegedly described the email as “brilliant”.
PC Wallis was jailed for misconduct in public office after it was found he lied about the Plebgate affair. But the Crown Prosecution Service refused to charge Johnson and Glanville because it said a jury would be likely to decide they acted in the public interest.
Mitchell said “consistent attempts” were made by the officers “during the police investigation into these events to conceal their actions and present their activities as if there was no collusion, collaboration or communications between themselves”.
“It is clear that a number of DPG [Diplomatic Protection Group] officers shared the aim of damaging [Mitchell], forcing him to resign if they could, and damaging the government,” the reply said.
“It is clear that they were communicating with each other and providing each other with information and, to an extent, discussing what they planned to do with that information with that common purpose.
“Precisely what each of them knew about what the other officers were doing with the information is not known and is not material because what is clear is that it was done with a common purpose.”
Mitchell said that on 21 September he apologised to Rowland on the telephone, but not for the “toxic” phrases attributed to him. Mitchell claims Rowland said: “Thank you very much sir, it’s the first time in 20 years that a member of the public has apologised to me.”
In its amended defence, The Sun claimed Mitchell had called one police officer a “little shit” and referred to another as “Mr Plod”.
Mitchell said he could not recall telling an officer, “Stop being so aggressive, you little shit”, when he cycled through the gates of Black Rod’s Garden and was chased. But, he said, “given the officer’s behaviour [which Mitchell described as “aggressive and unpleasant”], he cannot rule out the possibility that he did”.
On the "Mr Plod" allegation, he said he had “no recollection of ever using the term ‘Mr Plod’ towards the officer concerned”.
Mitchell also denied having a lack of respect for the police, pointing out that he has visited Sutton Coldfield station “every Christmas for 13 years to thank them personally for their hard work”.
He admitted that he has on occasion been “impatient and short-tempered with obstructive or otherwise unhelpful police officers because he felt they were impeding his ability to do his job and very occasionally he was (or may have appeared to have been) rude, or used swear words when speaking to those officers”.