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THE LEVESON inquiry into the phone hacking scandal took a much more sinister and serious turn this week. It was transformed from an exploration of newspaper ethics into a full-frontal assault on the conduct of Britain’s police.
Over four days, evidence emerged that called into question the way in which the Metropolitan police handled its original investigation into hacking and, just as significantly, its five-year denial of there being anything worth investigating.
Along the way we discovered the intensely close relationship between senior journalists at Rupert Murdoch’s UK publishing company, News International, and high-ranking officers from Scotland Yard. The links were cemented through lunches, dinners, drinks, including the quaffing of champagne, and visits to football matches. And, most bizarre of all, there was the case of the retired police horse lent to the company’s former chief executive, Rebekah Brooks.
Moreover, British prime minister David Cameron was yesterday forced to admit that he had ridden the said horse, Raisa. He had done so, he explained, in the company of Brooks’s husband, Charlie, one of his Eton contemporaries.
There could not have been a clearer indication of the establishment nexus that Murdoch has made a career of scorning. The triangle of elite privilege and power has been exposed. The country’s most powerful newspaper publisher was connected to the head of its government and to the top brass of its leading police force.
Yet it was this police force that was in possession of documentary proof of illegality by that same publisher, namely the hacking of hundreds of people, including the deputy prime minister, other senior politicians, scores of celebrities, a murdered schoolgirl and the bereaved relatives of the victims of other murders, of war and acts of terrorism. The vast majority were never informed of that fact.
All the while, Metropolitan police assistant commissioners were being wined and dined by the News of the World. One of them, Andy Hayman, had dinners with the paper’s former editor Andy Coulson, his deputy editor Neil Wallis and the crime editor, Lucy Panton.
Four months after leaving the Met in April 2008, he started work as a columnist on another News International paper, the Times .
John Yates – Britain’s most senior counterterrorism officer at the time – regularly enjoyed meals at expensive restaurants with Wallis. He also dined at the exclusive Ivy Club with the editor who succeeded Coulson, Colin Myler, and Panton, noting in Scotland Yard’s hospitality register that its purpose was “to improve understanding of each other’s operational environment”.
Panton, it should be noted, also happened to be married to a serving Metropolitan police officer.
Lord Justice Leveson, after watching Yates answer questions for three hours, observed: “Do you think, looking back on this, Mr Yates, that at the very least there is a perception of improper inference on your judgment by your contacts with News International?”
Yates would have none of it. “My conscience is clear,” he replied.
This was a remarkably sanguine response given what happened in July 2009. That month, the Guardian ran a series of allegations that exposed to ridicule the News of the World’ s long-held claim that phone hacking went no further than “one rogue reporter”.
Yates was asked to look into the allegations and within a day appeared in front of the cameras to announce that there was nothing to the Guardian’s article, so there was no need to reopen the investigation.
It was another two years before the Met was forced to do just that after the Guardian’s astonishing disclosure that the voicemail messages of murdered girl Milly Dowler had been intercepted.
Now the reinvestigation is in full swing, with 30 arrests so far, and inquiries have moved beyond phone hacking into computer hacking and, more recently, to bribery – the alleged illegal payments by journalists at the Sun to public officials, including police officers.
That led to one of the most jaw-dropping moments at the Leveson inquiry, when the woman who is now leading the Yard investigation, deputy assistant commissioner Sue Akers, told of the Sun having established a “network of corrupted officials” and created a “culture of illegal payments”.
She told the inquiry there had been “multiple payments” by the paper to public officials, involving thousands of pounds. One individual had received £80,000 (€96,000) over a number of years, and one Sun journalist had drawn more than £150,000 over the years to pay sources.
Akers’s intervention was a direct rebuttal of criticism by Sun staff who had complained about the arrests of 10 of its executives and reporters. An 11th was detained on Thursday.
Akers was also eager to deny that this money had been paid out to obtain public interest stories, stating that it had resulted instead in the publication of “salacious gossip”.
Jaws dropped further still at other revelations. An internal email came to light that showed News International executives were told about phone hacking in 2006, which contrasted with their public statements of ignorance. That note, written by the News of the World’s former legal manager, Tom Crone, informed Coulson and Brooks that the police had the paper’s royal editor, Clive Goodman, and its contracted private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, “bang to rights” on the illegal interception of voicemails of Buckingham Palace staff. But crucially, it added that the police had also discovered a list of “100-110 victims”.
Yet all three, though aware of the extent of hacking, went on to maintain for the following five years that hacking was restricted only to Goodman, the rogue reporter.
As if that isn’t enough, there is another ticking time-bomb that is haunting proceedings. Court documents filed by hacking victims – a source of many disclosures over the past seven months – have revealed the existence of an explosive email. It shows that there was an attempt at a cover-up at News International.
In July 2010, an as yet unnamed senior executive asked for a progress report on the “email deletion policy”. It said: “How come we still haven’t done the email deletion policy discussed and approved six months ago?”
When that person’s name emerges in public, there is bound to be another furore. As old Fleet Street journalists were once fond of saying about stories, this one will run and run and run. Our jaws are aching because they keep dropping so often. But there is little to laugh about. It is a sordid saga that besmirches our trade.
Roy Greenslade is professor of journalism at City University London and writes a blog for the Guardian