Melanie Phillips

10 July 2011

The News of the World scandal -- cui bono?

Published in: Melanie's blog

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As I have said before, the unanswered questions in the News of the World scandal -- which still aren’t even being generally asked -- concern the part played by the Metropolitan Police.

There are claims that the NoW paid a number of officers bribes for information. But additional questions continue to mount, not least after today’s  astonishing  Sunday Telegraph interview by Assistant Commissioner John Yates, the officer who in 2009 failed to reopen the police inquiry into the hacking scandal despite the continuing furore and fresh information coming to light.

The police involvement in this affair is central. Indeed, you could say they have been playing no fewer than three roles.

First, there are the unnamed Metropolitan Police officers allegedly bunged some £100,000 in bribes by the NoW in exchange for information.

Second, scores of officers from the same Met are now investigating an affair which  involves some of their own officers – both in respect of the alleged bribes and the failure to investigate the full ramifications of the NoW scandal until early this year.

And third, they are now feeding information to and manipulating the press; whether or not this is the result of internal machinations between these different factions, the effect is that attention is diverted from their own key role in this murky business.

And the questions continue to mount. Why did the NoW suddenly kick-start the whole thing again last January by making available to the police material they appear to have sat on for years?

Who was behind the sudden explosive revelation to the press last Monday about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone, precisely when Murdoch’s bid for BSkyB had reached a critical point?

Why have police sources been drip-feeding revelations to the media since the scandal detonated a week ago – including the advance star-billing given to the arrest of Andy Coulson?

And why was the Met’s Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who is central to the failure of the investigation in 2009, allowed to give his ‘mea culpa’ interview to the Telegraph?

This particular exercise smacks of media damage control of a high order, and from on high. Even so, Yates’s excuses for having failed to re-start the investigation were quite jaw-dropping.  For example, he acknowledged that for three years he had just sat on bin bags full of thousands of pages of evidence. He says the police never pursued the investigation in 2009 because they were heavily engaged in foiling the al Qaeda transatlantic airlines plot. But that doesn’t explain why he failed for three years to look at those bin-bags. Not only that:

But as queries poured in from celebrities and politicians asking if they had been victims of hacking, Yates realised the evidence in the bin bags needed to be entered on to a computer database. He employed a team of ten to input the information but still failed to re-open the investigation. ‘I’m not going to go down and look at bin bags.  I am supposed to be an Assistant Commissioner. Perhaps I should have been more demanding. I am accountable, and it happened on my watch, and it’s clear I could have done more,’ he said (my emphasis).

Oh dear.

One question is why the police remit at that time was drawn so narrowly that it apparently precluded a wider investigation. The Observer reports that the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which is about to issue a report on the scandal, will say that Scotland Yard asked for a narrow remit for their inquiry and the former Director of Public Prosecutions Ken Macdonald — who was recently offered a post as an adviser to News International -- merely rubber-stamped it. However in his Telegraph interview Yates says the police remit arose from the legal advice they were being given:

'We took a narrow view of what a victim was, because that is what we felt the [legal] advice was.... I’ve never seen the 11,000 pages; I knew there were bin bags full of material but legal counsel reviewed all of it. They will say they reviewed the material solely according to the narrow framework of the indictment but the fact of the matter is they saw all the source material.’

Who were these legal counsel? Presumably they were the Met’s own in-house lawyers.  But their legal advice would have been shaped in turn by the questions the Met officers were asking them.

Why did the then DPP Ken Macdonald rubber-stamp this failure? Isn’t the DPP supposed to be the guardian of the public interest when it comes to deciding on criminal investigations? Why did the CPS and the police don blinkers for so long? Are we really being asked to believe that it was because they all assumed that this was only about absurd celebrity egos and the Guardian’s vendetta against Rupert Murdoch? Is that really likely?

And to repeat – why was the fuse finally lit last week at the very moment when it was most likely to bring down the Murdoch empire? As ever, the question of questions is -- cui bono?

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

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Melanie Phillips
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