07.24.11

Murdoch Scandal’s New Top Cop

While her predecessors at Scotland Yard sought attention and high profiles—and were forced to resign—Sue Akers favors discretion over drama. Mike Giglio on the woman leading the phone hacking case.

A rare woman in the boys’ club that is Scotland Yard. A detective known for her grit, independence, and uncompromising ways. A petite blonde underestimated at your own peril.

If the head of the phone-hacking investigation, Sue Akers, sounds a lot like Jane Tennison, the straight-shooting detective on the seminal British television show Prime Suspect, that’s not really surprising—the real detective once helped actress Helen Mirren prepare for the fictional part.

“In the interim,” says Mirren, “she has rightfully risen to the top of her profession.”

Like Mirren’s character, Akers favors discretion over drama, a preference evidenced by her recent performance at a parliamentary hearing in London. Lips pursed, hands folded on top of an index binder, Akers looked nothing like a top cop as she faced the home affairs committee in a room that, after hours of testimony from other police officials, had been largely abandoned by journalists. But if the professional observers weren’t paying attention to Akers, they should have. Not only is she in charge of the investigation into police and media malfeasance that has embarrassed the country’s government and brought low a media mogul, some also predict she might be the next chief. (Scotland Yard declined all requests for comment from Akers.)

“She’s holding the reputation of the Metropolitan Police together almost singlehandedly,” says Tom Watson, the British parliamentarian who has played a key role in pushing for a full and thorough phone-hacking investigation.  “You’ve got the weight of Parliament and the media bearing down on this organization. When everyone else was ducking for cover, she was just signing on.”

Lord David Puttnam, the acclaimed film producer and Labour peer who has been a vocal critic of Rupert Murdoch’s expanding reach, puts it this way: “From everything I can gather her career path has been very much her own making. She does not appear to be someone who’s ever put herself in the position of owing anyone any favors.”

Akers, now 55, joined London’s notoriously misogynist police force in 1976 and pursued what one senior barrister describes as “a low-profile career path.” This may have been, in part, a strategy to survive the rampant sexism that prevailed. “I attracted unwarranted attention from my boss. There was no culture of whistle blowing then so you had to think of creative ways to protect yourself,” Akers told a local newspaper in 2004. “I was very conscious that I was a woman.”

She didn’t ask for any special favors or lodge any formal complaints, but put in tough time on the murder squad. She was one of the first female cops to carry a weapon and the fifth woman in Scotland Yard history to lead a borough. Through her years on the force, she earned an aura of a lone ranger, beholden to no one. “She didn’t hitch herself to anyone’s star,” says her former boss, Brian Paddick, now a politician and the Liberal Democrat candidate for mayor of London in 2008. Before she took on the phone-hacking investigation, Akers had become London’s top gang cop and was known to broker no nonsense, even from her bosses. “She’s the kind of cop who wouldn’t give you a break if you parked on the double line,” says one person closely involved in the phone-hacking case.

Just this week, Akers expanded the investigation’s scope significantly, boosting her team from 45 to 60 after announcing that more newspapers would be scrutinized. Akers also promised that each of the almost 4,000 victims who’ve been identified so far would be contacted personally, a decision that’s been criticized because it would slow the investigation to a glacial pace. So far, fewer than 200 people have been contacted, and the vast majority of victims are still unaware their phones were intercepted.

At the hearing on July 12 in a small drab room in Portcullis House, Akers silently observed the dissection of other police officials, all of them men trying to defend their abysmal performance during previous investigations into the scandal. Akers’ predecessors had sought attention and high profiles. They networked with power brokers and dined with News International executives, exactly the kind of cozy, old-boys’-club-style relationships that got the Yard in trouble.

'From everything I can gather her career path has been very much her own making. She does not appear to be someone who’s ever put herself in the position of owing anyone any favors.'

To any spectator, it was clear that at the very least, they had been negligent—and possibly corrupt. John Yates, the assistant police commissioner, was urged to resign, as days later he would, followed by his boss, London’s top cop. Former head investigator Andy Hayman was compared to Inspector Clouseau of The Pink Panther, derided during the hearing for dining with News International executives while he led an investigation of the company. “A lot of her former colleagues were attempts at politicians, not policemen,” Watson says. “And she is no politician, which is a good thing under these circumstances.”

Seated at the table, flipping through her binder to find accurate answers, she gave her testimony so softly that she had to be asked to move closer to the microphone. But there was a subtle intensity beneath it all. Chairman Keith Vaz closed the hearing by asking Akers if she was confident there would be a thorough investigation. She interrupted him, raising her voice to startled stares. “I guarantee there will be a thorough investigation,” she said.

John Barry in Washington contributed reporting.