The Met does nothing to dispel the Hackgate fog
Published in: Melanie's blog
The British political and media class has been hysterical with excitement over the arraignment today of the Murdochs, father and son, along with Rebekah Brooks before the Commons Culture Media and Sport Select Committee, a hearing which is now under way (although temporarily suspended a few moments ago after a man tried to attack Rupert Murdoch). Down the corridor, the ex-Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and the ex-head of counter terrorism Assistant Commissioner John Yates, both of whom have resigned as a result of this volcanic scandal, have also been grilled this afternoon by the Home Affairs Select Committee.
In my view that was the more important session because, as readers know, I believe the behaviour of the police is the most important element of this affair.
Let’s recap. Neil Wallis, the former News of the World deputy editor who has been arrested in connection with the hacking scandal, was employed between 2009 and 2010 as a PR adviser to the Met.
Stephenson, who had himself dined with Wallis at an earlier juncture, chose not to reveal this fact to either the Mayor or the government, even after the hacking scandal erupted. It was only revealed a few days ago on the day Wallis was arrested. The reason that Stephenson gave for this in his resignation statement was bizarre:
Secondly, once Mr Wallis’s name did become associated with Operation Weeting [the police investigation into the NoW that was re-opened last January] I did not want to compromise the Prime Minister in any way by revealing or discussing a potential suspect who clearly had a close relationship with Mr Coulson. I am aware of the many political exchanges in relation to Mr Coulson’s previous employment - I believe it would have been extraordinarily clumsy of me to have exposed the Prime Minister, or by association the Home Secretary, to any accusation, however unfair, as a consequence of them being in possession of operational information in this regard. Similarly, the Mayor.
At the Committee hearing today, Stephenson stated that he didn’t believe the Prime Minister would have been compromised -- but he wanted to guard against accusations that he was compromised. This all makes no sense whatever. How could this information have been thought to compromise the Prime Minister or the Mayor? The people compromised by the Met’s hiring of Wallis were surely the Metropolitan Police.
Stephenson was also treated to 20 days free convalescence at Champneys health farm – for which it just so happened that Wallis was a PR. In addition, it was revealed that Stephenson, Assistant Commisioner Yates who decided in 2009 not to reopen the police investigation into the News of the World, and the officer in charge of the original investigation, Andy Hayman, had repeatedly dined with journalists at the News of the World.
For his part, Yates resigned yesterday after he discovered he was about to be suspended over his own connection to Wallis. It has emerged that Yates had been a friend of Wallis for 12 years.
And all this against the background of so far unsubstantiated claims that an unknown number of police officers were receiving backhanders from NoW journalists to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds.
Of course we have yet to discover the truth of many of these claims. But what is already known is extraordinarily serious.
It should have been unthinkable for the Met to have any social contact with people employed by an organisation under investigation for criminal activity – not just during but also after that first investigation, since there were constantly repeated claims that the scandal went very much further and that the remit of that first police inquiry had been drawn far too tightly.
It should have been unthinkable for the Met Commissioner to accept a freebie worth thousands of pounds at a luxury health farm, regardless of whoever was running its PR account.
It should have been unthinkable for a police force to hire as a PR consultant a former executive of a company which remained under a public cloud after an investigation by that same police force.
And it should have been unthinkable for a police force effectively to investigate itself, as the Met is currently doing in a scandal in which its own role is part of the scandal.
Yet the really startling thing is that none of these officers appear to have any understanding that they had done anything wrong at all.
Stephenson seems to think there was nothing wrong with his accepting the freebie at Champneys.
At today’s hearing he defended his 18 lunches or dinners with NoW journalists (as well as seven or eight with Wallis) on the grounds that part of his role was to establish relationships with the media to explain the work of the police. Of course -- but the NoW was an organisation his own force had investigated, and the extent of its alleged wrongdoing remained a source of intense political controversy during the interim between the two investigations.
Moreover, Stephenson told the committee he saw nothing wrong in having tried to persuade the Guardian to drop its own campaign against the NoW – during the very period that Wallis was employed to give PR advice to the Met. Stephenson indignantly told the committee that of course he had never had any contact with Wallis over this; but he didn’t need to have done. For the head of a police force to have tried to persuade a newspaper to stop pursuing a line of inquiry about the News of the World, while employing as a PR adviser a former deputy editor of that paper, is surely remarkable.
As for Assistant Commissioner Yates, he told the committee he had resigned because the scandal was getting in the way of his counter-terrorist role but he had done nothing wrong. But some of his answers will surely raise yet more eyebrows.
He agreed that Neil Wallis was a friend, albeit one he only saw two or three times a year. Asked whether he had secured a post at Scotland Yard for Wallis’s daughter, he brushed this aside on the ground that he had acted merely as a ‘post-box’ by forwarding her email to the head of recruitment.
Most remarkable, however, was the account to the committee by both Yates and Dick Fedorcio, the Met’s head of communications, about the hiring of Neil Wallis as a PR adviser in September 2009, eight weeks after Yates had decided there was no reason to reopen the NoW investigation.
Fedorcio told the committee he had asked Yates to conduct ‘due diligence’ inquiries about Wallis – whom someone had recommended to him to give assistance on PR. Who was this someone? Fedorcio couldn’t remember. Was it Rebekah Brooks or anyone else at News International, he was asked? Absolutely not, he replied. But if he couldn’t remember who it was, how could he be so sure?
Next, Fedorcio stated that had never asked Wallis whether he had played any role in the hacking scandal; he had left that matter to Yates upon whose judgment he relied.
For his part, Yates claimed that was ‘over-egging’ it. He had not conducted due diligence inquiries, and he had never asked Wallis directly whether he had had any involvement in the hacking scandal. He had merely asked him for an assurance that there was nothing in the phone hacking matters still being investigated by the Guardian that could embarrass the Met. And Wallis had given him a categorical assurance that there was nothing.
Is this not astounding? First, there must have been some element of concern in the mind of Fedorcio about the fact that Wallis had been a highly-placed News of the World executive for him to have needed to have such an assurance in the first place. Yet all the police witnesses declared constantly there was no reason to have had any ongoing concern about the News of the World because, until the Met reopened its investigation last January, it believed that a line had been drawn under the affair.
And then for Yates to have asked a man who he says was a friend with whom he went to football matches merely to give him a blanket assurance that his appointment would not embarrass the Met, without even asking him specifically about his role in the hacking scandal – and then to take his assurance on face value -- is astonishing.
If what we have been hearing all represents truly genuine indignation at any implication of wrongdoing at any level in the Met, this is surely even more alarming than any attempt to evade or mislead. For if these officers genuinely think what they did was justified at the time, this suggests that de-moralisation – in every sense of the word – is endemic within the Met. And that is truly terrifying.
A media company is, after all, just a media company; if it has done wrong, the miscreants are dealt with and the caravan moves on. But the police are a key institution of society. If that institution goes off the rails, miscreants cannot be brought to book in the first place. Today’s hearing has done nothing to dispel the fear that the most important police force in the UK has indeed thus gone off the rails.
The roots of this demoralisation go back a long way. I’d date the start to the scandals of the 1980s, when a number of convictions were overturned after the police were said to have played fast and loose with the rules. Then there was the shattering blow of the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, which accused the police of ‘institutional racism’ – a wicked smear that was applied to the entire British police but which, rather than fighting it, senior officers internalised and then turned policing upside down to purify it of the scourge.
At the same time, more and more senior officers were being promoted not because of ‘boots on the ground’ experience but because they had university degrees – which often merely qualified them in political correctness. And the final coup de grace was the politicisation of the police under the Labour government, which turned an officer class which needed above all to be utterly independent into creatures of ministers upon whose preferment they came to depend and whose bidding they cravenly did.
This is therefore a problem going far beyond the Met. And so it’s a nightmare for the Home Secretary, Theresa May when it comes to appointing the new Commissioner. The problem is illustrated by the appointment of Cressida Dick as Yates’s (temporary) replacement in charge of counter- terrorism. For Ms Dick’s career itself almost came off the rails after she oversaw the bungled police operation which resulted in the police shooting dead on the London Tube an innocent Brazilian electrician, Jean-Charles de Menezes, whom the police had mistaken for an al Qaeda terrorist.
If there is any chance of rescuing the Met from the mire into which it has descended, the new Commissioner must be someone with no experience of the Met -- and preferably even of British policing. The Home Secretary should now be on the phone to the US to beg and plead Bill Bratton, the officer who turned round the New York police through a combination of high intelligence, professional insight and iron integrity, to take the job.