Police records of Priti Patel’s contact with senior officers regarding an Extinction Rebellion protest were lost following an “IT glitch”, a court has heard.
It follows a blockade of Rupert Murdoch-owned printing works in September last year, which resulted in some protesters being charged.
Their defence lawyers now argue they are unable to have a fair trial because the level of potential political interference is not known.
St Albans Magistrates’ Court heard Patel heard about the protest in Broxbourne “through contacts in the media”, The Independent has reported.
In a statement read at a hearing yesterday, Herts Police chief constable Charlie Hall said Patel called him at 11.40pm on 4 September, but he does not hold any records of the conversation. He said they then spoke in the “hours of darkness”.
Hall added: “My phone has updated itself since that time and removed any messages or all records from this period.”
The operation’s gold commander Matt Nicholls said he had received a text from Patel during the afternoon on 5 September.
He said she was thanking police for their work, but added: “These texts to my work phone have been deleted… a number of work phones were erroneously reset to factory settings after an IT glitch.”
Barrister Raj Chada said the defence would be asking how phone records belonging to two senior officers and relating to “the very issue at the heart of this case” came to be deleted.
“We say in light of that the defendants cannot receive a fair trial,” he added.
“It is only when the extent of the political interference is determined that this court can scrutinise the effect.”
District Judge Sally Fudge said she had seen screenshots of text messages between some police officers and the home secretary but did not say where the records were from.
She ruled that the messages did not have to be disclosed to the defence and were not “reasonably capable of undermining the prosecution case”. She will make another ruling on Monday, after she receives further records.
Prosecutor Nigel Ogborne said the prosecution’s view was that none of the material received “satisfied the disclosure test”.
Chada read parts of a policing review of the operation to remove protesters, which also noted contact with the home secretary, and suggested “significant contact and significant pressure” on police.
If proven true, this would go against UK’s ‘police operational independence’ principle, which the government promised to protect.
Police officers who have given evidence in court reject the claim that their decisions were influenced.
The court proceedings follow around 50 protesters who last year stopped 3.5 million newspapers from being distributed across the UK: The Sun, The Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard.
Protesters previously told St Albans Magistrates’ Court their actions were intended to show the media’s failure to report on the seriousness of climate crisis.
Patel publicly condemned the protest at the time, labelling it an “attack on our free press” and “completely unacceptable”. Dozens of activists have been prosecuted since.
Related: David Cameron texts deleted by top civil servant after ‘wrong password’ entered
Patel slams Extinction Rebellion blocking printing presses as attack on ‘free press, society & democracy’
Murdoch’s titles including Sun newspaper delayed by Extinction Rebellion