Something's bugging me...
Sometimes in this job you stumble into a subject about which you know very little and emerge, well, confused. Then you suddenly realise that this is entirely intentional. Clarity is sometimes the last thing governments want when handling tricky questions. So it is has been over the years with the issue of bugging MPs (or intercepting their communications which, I now realise, is very different). To be fair to the Justice Secretary Jack Straw if you listened to him very carefully and then read what he had to say several times the fog did begin to clear (a little).
So here goes:
The "Wilson doctrine" does not ban the bugging of MPs. In fact, it bans nothing at all since Wilson's words were a masterpiece of civil service drafting which said, in effect, "we won't tap the phones of MPs... unless we do... then we'll tell Parliament about it... when and if it's safe to do so".
Two years ago the cabinet debated scrapping the doctrine. They tried to write a new, clearer set of rules. These would have allowing the bugging of MPs, like the rest of us, if this was justified by threats to national security or suspected criminal activity but protecting their dealings with a constituent and their conversations in Parliament itself.
This was abandoned, I was told by some of those involved, because the ambiguity inherent in the Wilson doctrine would have been revealed. It would, in the words of one source, have "opened a can of worms" ie ministers would have been forced to reveal that they had tapped the phones of those still, at that time, involved in the search of a political settlement in Northern Ireland. Another told me that the doctrine was helpfully vague and that the last thing ministers needed was a discussion of what was or was not allowed.
The "Wilson doctrine" does not ban all monitoring of what MPs say in private. Up until now I've used the word "bugging" rather loosely. The law distinguishes between intercepts (that's phone and email tapping to you and me) and eavesdropping (a bug in a public place).
The doctrine only relates to anything that requires a ministerial order ie intercepts and bugging which is carried out by the security services but not the police. This stems from the history of the doctrine which arose from fears that the security services could be used by government to target their political opponents.
So, police bugging is not covered by the Wilson doctrine. Why, then, did Jack Straw condemn the bugging by the police of Sadiq Khan MP and order an inquiry into it? Ministers, I'm told, want to be sure that Khan, rather than the prisoner he was visiting, was not the subject of the bugging.
Khan was disliked by senior officers in the Met because of his role as a lawyer who'd represented black officers involved in legal actions against their bosses. His work as a civil liberties campaigner made him a thorn in the Met's side. As I reported last night, some police officers regarded him as "a subversive". However, there is, as yet, no evidence he was the target of the bugging and, indeed, sources in the police and security services deny it.
If the enquiry confirms this there will still be questions about whether the police should have continued their bugging operation once they realised an MP was involved and why ministers only discovered what was going on thanks to media enquiries and not from the police, prison authorities or their own officials who'd known for weeks, if not months.
One thing his case is likely to produce is some answers (yes, only some) and a little (yes, just a little) more clarity about what is and what is not allowed.