Police Scotland has been accused of "smoke and mirrors" in order to minimise repeatedly breaching guidelines on accessing data without consent in a bid to track down journalists' sources.

Deputy Chief Constable Neil Richardson said the breaches had been a "mistake" he blamed on one officer's "misinterpretation" of new guidelines, the speed of their introduction and insufficient training.

Independent MSP John Finnie said he had "failed in his responsibility" for ensuring officers complied with the changes.

Under Mr Finnie's questioning, it also emerged Mr Richardson himself is the subject of "criminal or misconduct proceedings".

Since March, police have had to seek judicial approval under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000 to identify journalistic sources.

Last month, Sir Stanley Burton, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, said Police Scotland had contravened the relevant Code of Practice on five occasions, all linked to the investigation into the murder of prostitute Emma Caldwell.

Mr Richardson told the committee he had been painted as an "archetypal villain playing fast and loose with the rules".

He said: "What has surfaced over a number of months now are a series of accusations and newspaper headlines that have built a picture which bears little resemblance to the facts or the reality of this."

He told MSPs that Detective Superintendent David Donaldson had been tasked with applying the new guidelines after authorisations were sought in the context of information being leaked during a live murder inquiry to a retired police officer.

Mr Richardson said: "This is an extremely experienced officer who tried his level best to apply the regulations and what was required of him, and in so doing misinterpreted the requirements and allowed the authorisations to go ahead which then subsequently was identified by the inspectors as being wrong."

He said the notion that Police Scotland's counter corruption unit was "running amok" was "simply not accurate".

"The pace that the guidance came into being was very aggressive and, as a consequence, there is no doubt that that did lead to a more pressured introduction of these guidelines and as a consequence perhaps has played a factor in the errors that were subsequently made.

"It just so happens that the officer concerned has misinterpreted brand new legislation that at the point he was asked to do this was 22-days-old, and there had been only a very rapid introduction with limited opportunity for training and he himself had had documentation to read but had not received the actual training course associated with the new guidelines.

"This is an officer who was trying his best to do his professional duty and has made an error of judgement."

Liberal Democrat MSP Alison McInnes said: "We have to rely on what the commissioner has said, which was that it was not proportionate, it was not lawful, not necessary and it was, therefore, reckless."

Conservative MSP Margaret Mitchell attacked Mr Richardson over "smoke and mirrors about 22-day-old new code-of-practice guidelines that somehow someone couldn't interpret."

Mr Finnie said: "You have a responsibility for ensuring compliance and you've failed in that responsibility."

He was told no misconduct proceedings had been initiated against any officer for the breaches before asking Mr Richardson: "Are you the subject of any criminal or misconduct proceedings?"

Mr Richardson directed him to the Scottish Police Authority, whose chief executive John Foley was also giving evidence to the committee.

Mr Foley told MSPs: "The answer to that question would be yes but not in connection with these matters that we're discussing today."

A Police Scotland spokesman said : "As DCC Richardson said at committee this morning, this is a matter for the Scottish Policy Authority. Police Scotland will not be making further comment."

The Interception of Communications Commissioner's Office (IOCCO) identified in an interim report in mid-July that two forces were under investigation for potential breaches.

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson confirmed to the committee he was made aware of the Police Scotland breaches in July.

He said: "IOCCO's view was that, given that that was an ongoing investigation and given that they were continuing to look into the issue, it wouldn't be appropriate for them to name any of the forces who were involved in those investigations. We accepted and respected IOCCO's position on this."

Mr Matheson said there had been a "very tight timeframe" for introducing the code of practice.

"There were some challenges around guidance being provided to the police through the Home Office and also through IOCCO."

Mr Finnie said Mr Richardson's position had been "less than clear" and pressed Mr Matheson on the role of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA).

He said: "Once again, the police authority look like bystanders, they look like onlookers to a process, always playing catch up.

"I wonder what role you see for the police authority, they're effectively making themselves redundant.

"When they do become involved, it's playing catch-up, it's calling on the good services of Mr (Derek) Penman (HM Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland) and his staff.

"Are they doing themselves out of a job?"

Mr Matheson responded: "No, I don't agree with that. Are there areas for improvement? Of course there are.

"There's always room for improvements but what I think is worth reiterating is the point that oversight in this area on a statutory basis does lie with IOCCO in the same way as it does for every other police force in the UK."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Police Authority said it would not comment on individual cases.

However the SPA's website states that any complaint including an allegation of criminal activity about a senior police officer would be forwarded to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal's Service (COPFS).