Britain’s Police Reach New Low in Phone-Hacking Scandal

Graeme McLagan says Scotland Yard has reached a new low in the phone-hacking scandal—but it has a dismal history of corruption to atone for.

Sang Tan / AP Photo

By being too close to The News of the World, the Metropolitan Police (aka Scotland Yard), like the Conservative government, stands accused of exercising bad judgment, of being too trusting and of demonstrating willful blindness. The British public’s trust in the media, police, and politicians is at a dismal new low.

The tabloid press has never been held in high esteem. Trust in politicians fell further after the recent expenses scandal, which resulted in prison for some MPs who had falsified claims. The police were seen as trying to clean up their act. But the latest exposures have left the force thoroughly demoralised.

Rank-and-file officers expressed disgust on learning that Sir Paul Stephenson, who recently resigned as Met commissioner because of the phone-hacking scandal, obtained £12,000 worth of free hospitality from a friend at a health farm, whose PR was being run by a former deputy editor of The News of the World.

One detective said: “It's shocking that very senior officers have accepted hospitality, particularly from The News of the World, when ordinary officers are warned not to accept a free meal from, say, a restaurant owner, in case that compromises us in the future. And we're not supposed to even speak to reporters without clearing it with the press office beforehand.”

What has also surprised is the level of job-swapping, the so-called revolving door between News International titles and the Met. A quarter of the force's press officers came from the Murdoch stable. Unreported until a few days ago was that Neil Wallis, former deputy editor of The News of the World at the time of the phone hacking, was taken on at £1,000 a day to provide help and advice to the head of the news operation.

His appointment is now described as “appalling” by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, which has recently hauled various senior police officers before it. But at the time, no one within the Met appears to have expressed any concern, or worry about how it might be viewed outside.

Same with Andy Hayman, formerly assistant commissioner and No. 3 in the Met's hierarchy. He had meals with News International executives while in charge of the phone-hacking investigation, and within weeks of resigning from the Met in 2008 started writing a column for Rupert Murdoch's flagship paper, The Times.

“It's extraordinary,” said the Home Affairs Committee, “that he did not realize what the public perception of such contacts would be, or, if he did realize, he did not care that confidence in the impartiality of the police would be seriously undermined.”

The committee's report described Hayman's conduct during the phone-hacking investigation and his session in front of the MPs as both unprofessional and inappropriate. He displayed “an attitude of complacency,” with one likening him to “a dodgy geezer.”

However, in joining the Murdoch paper, Hayman was doing no more than what was done by his former boss, the commissioner Sir John Stevens, now Lord Stevens. At one of Stevens' retirement parties late in 2004, some were surprised to see Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) there. She and the commissioner were clearly on close terms. All was explained a little later when he started a column for The News of the World.

In fact, as commissioner, Stevens was responsible for encouraging more openness by the Met, writing in his memoirs that he “made himself available” to national newspaper editors, naming six, the first three being Piers Morgan (Daily Mirror), Rebekah Wade (Sun), and Andy Coulson (News of the World). All three went on to play parts in the phone-hacking scandal, with Coulson being forced to resign because of it. He later became David Cameron's press officer until he had to resign from that, too.

Like Hayman, Stevens also knew a lot about leaks of confidential information, and newspapers' use of private investigators who employed corrupt police. He was in charge of a fresh anti-corruption drive by the Met.

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During the 1980s and 1990s, London police were beset with stories of organized police corruption. Detectives were taking thousands of pounds from criminals, stealing heavy drugs, and then recycling them through informants. There was also increasing concern about the involvement of private investigators who were interfering with investigations, “blagging” information, and employing corrupt officers, feeding tabloid newspapers' growing demand for information on celebrities.

In 1998, as deputy commissioner and in charge of a fresh anti-corruption drive, Stevens gave permission for officers to bug the offices of a south London detective agency, Southern Investigations, being run by two men suspected of involvement in the murder of one of the agency's owners, Daniel Morgan, who in 1987 was found dead in a pub car park with an axe in his head. Jonathan Rees had been Morgan's partner in the business. The man replacing Morgan was Sid Fillery, a former detective who had actually been part of the team investigating the murder.

Police intelligence reports describe Rees and Fillery as “corrupters of police officers and participants in organized crime” and that they are “a crucial link between the criminal fraternity and serving police officers. There is nothing that they do that in any way benefits the criminal-justice system.” Another report said they had “been involved in the long-term penetration of police and intelligence sources… Their thirst for knowledge is driven by profit to be accrued from the media.”

Just one month of bugging produced evidence that corrupt officers were passing on information about the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, and high-profile prisoners awaiting trial. Police working on the murder of the TV presenter Jill Dando provided information that was then passed on to newspapers. A royalty protection squad officer was regularly providing information, including a tip that the marriage of two minor members of the royal family was in trouble.

Months of bugging showed that reporters from three tabloid newspapers were receiving confidential information from the agency. They were the Sunday Mirror, the Daily Mirror (editor Piers Morgan), and the News of the World, edited then by Rebekah Wade. Transcripts identify Alex Marunchak of The News of the World as one of the agency's lucrative customers, owing Rees £7,500 at one stage for services rendered.

Police hoped the bugging operation would result in long custodial sentences for both police and journalists. “This will send,” said a report, “a clear message to members of the media to consider their own ethical and illegal involvement with employees of the Met in the future.”

But it was not to be. Instead, in 2002, Rees, another man, and a detective were all jailed for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice by being involved in the planting of drugs on an innocent woman. The homes of a reporter and a royalty protection officer were also raided, but no charges were ever brought.

But publicity about the raids and imprisonment did not deter further contact between the agency and Marunchak, still working under the editorship of Rebekah Wade.

In 2002, the Met announced the reopening of the Morgan axe murder investigation on BBC TV's Crimewatch, offering a reward of £50,000. Shortly afterward, the investigation's head, detective chief superintendent Dave Cook, who had appeared on the program, was warned that he was to be "sorted out." He then noticed a surveillance van close to his home. It followed him taking his children to school.

Confronting the van's occupants, he was told they were from The News of the World and learned that the story being pursued was that he was having an affair with a Crimewatch presenter, Jacqui Hames. The claim was nonsense as Cook and Hames were married, had children, and were living together, as the simplest of checks would have confirmed.

Cook complained about the harassment and Commissioner John Stevens sanctioned a meeting between Cook and Wade. It took place in January 2003 at Scotland Yard with notes being taken by another senior officer and the head of the Met's press operation, Dick Fedorcio, whose performance was also criticised later by the Commons Home Affairs Committee. Wade is understood to have justified the surveillance because of the tip about the “affair” and to have defended Marunchak on the grounds that he was good at his job.

The episode appears not to have damaged Wade's relationship with the commissioner and, far from Marunchak being warned off from further contact with Southern Investigations, he resumed work with Jonathan Rees when the latter left prison a couple of years later. When Rees was arrested for a third time over the Daniel Morgan murder, invoices from The News of the World were found at his home detailing payments for information he had provided on politicians, including cabinet ministers, Jack Straw and Peter Mandelson, and on “Will's girl,” apparently a reference to Prince William's then-girlfriend, Kate Middleton.

Rees denies ever hacking telephones, but says that one of those working for him in the mid-1990s was Glenn Mulcaire, and that another of his News of the World customers was the reporter Clive Goodman. When Mulcaire left Southern Investigations to set up on his own, he took with him Goodman, Rees's best customer. In 2007, Mulcaire and Goodman, who was by then The News of the World's royal correspondent, were jailed for their part in phone hacking.

No evidence has so far surfaced that shows phone hacking was regularly practised by other newspapers. However, Piers Morgan, now hosting a CNN talk show, quotes in his memoirs from his diary entry for 2001, when he was editor of The Daily Mirror. He wrote how a little trick of entering a standard four-digit code allowed anyone to call a cellphone number and hear all the messages.

Police may have thought that the Southern Investigation convictions would put a stop to newspaper use of private investigators and detectives. How many were involved in addition to Rees and Mulcaire is unclear but investigations into the activities of a third man, Steve Whittamore, came up with startling figures.

He had handled thousands of requests, many of them illegal, for information from 305 different journalists working across a huge range of newpapers and magazines. Topping a table of his customers listed in a 2006 report “What Price Privacy” by the Information Commissioner was The Daily Mail with 952 requests from 58 different journalists. Then came The Sunday People with 802 requests from 50 journalists, followed by The Daily Mirror (681 from 45), The Mail on Sunday (266 from 33), and The News of the World (228 from 23)

Although Whittamore was convicted, he was not imprisoned and none of the journalists asking him for information were ever arrested, as prosecutors believed reporters would argue either that they did not know that Whittamore was breaking the law or that the information they were after was in the public interest.

The Commons Home Affairs Committee's report issued on July 20 recommended the beefing up of the new police inquiry into phone hacking by The News of the World and within hours the number of officers was increased from 45 to 60.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron announced July 20 who will be on the judge-led inquiry into the whole affair. Journalists are included, but none are from tabloids and none have a crime or Home Affairs background.

When it and other inquiries will report is unknown, but already this scandal has had a chilling affect on police-media relations. As a longstanding BBC Home Affairs correspondent, now freelancing on police matters, I have never paid an officer for information, either directly or indirectly. I have been described as a “respected journalist” by the present lord chief justice, Lord Judge, during a police-corruption case I was covering. Four years ago, when winning a libel action taken against me by an allegedly corrupt officer, three lords of appeals praised me for my “honesty, expertise on the subject, careful research, and painstaking evaluation of a mass of material.”

Recognized as someone only covering stories of genuine public interest, even I have been finding it difficult in recent days to speak to even fairly senior officers who are allowed to talk to journalists without prior permission. Phones and messages have gone unanswered. One who did answer said he could not talk, fearing that my number would show on his phone billing.

The antics of Murdoch's News of the World and other tabloids have caused immeasurable harm to police-media relations and to the serious coverage of police and crime.