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Monday, 14 January, 2002, 22:02 GMT
Officer 'leaked information to press'
Manchester bomb scene
The 1996 bomb attack injured almost 400 people
A senior Special Branch officer leaked "highly confidential and sensitive" information about the investigation into the Manchester IRA bombing to the press, a court has been told.

Detective Chief Inspector Gordon Mutch was disappointed that a top-level decision had been made not to arrest and interview a prime suspect over the 1996 explosion, Manchester Crown Court heard.

At the request of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, senior Manchester officers agreed in 1997 not to send a file on their investigation to the Crown Prosecution Service for confidential reasons.

David Perry, prosecuting, said Mr Mutch provided a Manchester Evening News crime reporter with details of the secret agreement between the police and Northern Ireland.

This case is not about the freedom of the press

David Perry, prosecutor

It was the following year that the reasons for the agreement "fell away" and the file was forwarded, he said.

He added that the newspaper clearly had access to details of the secret agreement.

Mr Mutch, head of the force's Special Branch Irish Desk, pleaded not guilty to misconduct in a public office.

Mr Perry told the jury that the decision to publish the material had been one for the newspaper and they might agree or disagree with it.

"You may feel the public was better informed about what the police were doing during the investigation," he said.

"But this case is not about the freedom of the press... the freedom of individuals to act contrary to their duty is another.

Manchester Crown Court
The case is being heard at Manchester Crown Court

"There is no freedom to reveal confidential methods of investigation."

At the time of the alleged leak, Mr Mutch was senior investigating officer in the inquiry into the lorry bomb, which left nearly 400 people injured in June 1996.

The jury was told that the Manchester Evening News had published an article by crime reporter Steve Panter on April 21 1999 naming Declan McCann, 31, from Crossmaglen, South Armagh, as a suspect.

It is also reported that senior Manchester police officers were satisfied that Mr McCann was involved in the conspiracy to cause the explosion but felt "bitter frustration" that he had not been arrested.

It was ruled by CPS lawyers and a barrister that although there was enough evidence to arrest Mr McCann, there was not enough evidence to charge him and obtain a conviction.

After the police were told the newspaper was preparing to publish an article, they launched an investigation into the alleged leak.

Manchester Evening News building
Manchester Evening News printed the story in 1999

Mr Perry said they found records of telephone calls made by Mr Mutch to Mr Panter.

They also found the two men had stayed at the same hotel in Skipton, North Yorkshire, one night in February 1999, shortly after the CPS decision not to proceed with the arrest of Mr McCann.

Mr Perry said that police also discovered records of telephone calls made by Mr Mutch from a telephone box near the hotel.

Mr Mutch had been asked by senior officers to comment on the leaks because he was one of only a small number of officers with access to the information.

'Highly sensitive'

In listing people who had seen the files he made the "glaring omission" of his visit to the hotel with Mr Panter at the time the Evening News article was being prepared, said Mr Perry.

"It [the information] was highly sensitive. It was known to only a few people. The damage that might be caused by the disclosure of confidential and sensitive information you might think is obvious."

He said that Mr Mutch's response to the CPS decision not to proceed further was that they would only find out what he was prepared to tell them by arresting and interviewing him.

"We will never know what McCann's responses are until we ask him," he had written.

After his arrest, Mr Mutch told fellow officers he was "flabbergasted".

He admitted being disappointed by the CPS decision but denied passing on information to the newspaper.

The trial was adjourned until Tuesday.

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