I’m worried about Andy Rowell.
Ever since his early-morning arrest two weeks ago on the suspicion of ‘misconduct in public office’, he’s been on my mind.
Mr Rowell is the London policeman accused of giving a newspaper “confidential information”. In his case, as in at least two others, no payment has been alleged. No money has changed hands.
Andy Rowell was arrested on suspicion of leaking something. In other words, he was arrested because he might have given a press contact a tip-off.
I’ve never met the now-suspended chief superintendent, and I’ve no idea what he’s supposed to have told – for free - at least one reporter.
But I’m worried. And if you’re a civil servant or a special adviser, you should be worried too. Because the arrest of someone for passing information to a journalist means none of us is quite as safe, or quite as free, as we’d like to believe.
During the early years of Tony Blair’s second term, the torrent of leaked “confidential information” from the Home Office – where I was a special adviser - was volcanic. Immigration, prisons, probation, crime, policing: nothing was safe. There was always someone in the department willing to pass the press a damning statistic or half-baked policy. No one ever leaks good news.
Furious notes to officials from then-Home Secretary David Blunkett achieved nothing. A lot of heads would shake; a desultory ‘inquiry’ would start; a week later, The Independent or The Guardian or The Times would get another exclusive. At the Home Office, new-policy leaks usually went to the broadsheets. The tabloids got the ones about how many prisoners had their own flat screen television.
Once, an entire 200-page draft of a secret white paper was given to at least four newspapers on the same day. We never found out who leaked it (although we had a good idea). It created an atmosphere of such bad-tempered suspicion, some ministers and officials barely spoke for weeks. I felt sorry for the journalists who’d had to read it.
In its 2009 report Leaks and Whistleblowing in Whitehall, the House of Commons Public Administration Committee said that while leaks can be damaging, they are, bluntly, “an occupational hazard”.
And that’s exactly all they usually are. An occupational hazard; irritating, occasionally humiliating, but rarely a breach of national security or a public danger.
You might argue that police leaks are, and should be, punished uniquely and harshly. Police officers are, after all, the frontline of the law; public trust in them is requisite.
But in English law, there is no difference between a junior civil servant and a senior police officer. The crime of ‘gross misconduct in public office’ is a common law offence; legislators have never provided a definition of a ‘public officer’. Instead, each case must be assessed individually by the courts.
Over the years, army officers, local councilors, civil servants, government accountants, coroners and police officers – even unpaid volunteers serving the public - have appeared in court charged with ‘gross misconduct’.
So, in theory, there is nothing to choose between a police officer and a Home Office civil servant who phones a reporter in a fit of pique; or out of concern that a crime is unresolved; or that a policy will hurt the old and vulnerable. A policeman who gives a reporter a tip is no different to the special adviser – a public servant, don’t forget - who leaks another department’s secret policy because she knows her own minister worries it will mean more rape crisis centres will close (yes, special advisers sometimes do that).
And that’s why I’m so worried about Mr Rowell.
I don’t know what kind of information he is alleged to have given a reporter; I don’t know what his reasons may have been if he did.
But I do know that the usual methods in cases like this – just as in the civil service – of internal hearings, followed if necessary by disciplinary action, suspension or even dismissal, have been leapfrogged. And that’s a deep new line in the sand that should worry us all.
Because if Mr Rowell has been arrested on suspicion of passing information to the press – and if, as the Met insist, there is no allegation of payment – any public servant who wants a voice, for himself or someone else, has just been gagged.
Unless, of course, she or he is brave enough to face possible arrest and suspension; and strong enough and rich enough to spend years arguing a public interest or whistleblower’s defence in the face of a lost reputation.
Leaks are frustrating and occasionally damaging; but the alternative is a closed government; a shuttered establishment whose servants are too afraid to speak out, even when they should.
And I think that’s far more harmful than anything a West London copper might tell a tabloid newspaper.