LONDON (Reuters) – “The basic test of a decent police force is that it catches more criminals than it employs.”
That adage, coined by Robert Mark, a Metropolitan Police Commissioner in the 1970s, might just as easily be applied to another profession with a similar stake in the public’s trust — investigative journalism.
In the wake of the UK’s hacking scandal, the British public seems to have reason for concern on both counts. The scandal that began at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid has tarnished the media magnate and British politicians alike. It has also exposed the sometimes cozy, sometimes sinister relationship between parts of Fleet Street and Scotland Yard, the British capital’s legendary police force.
An independent police complaints watchdog is investigating media allegations that News of the World reporters paid tens of thousands of pounds in “bungs,” or bribes, to police officers for information about celebrities, royals and other story subjects.
Scotland Yard has also admitted it bungled its initial handling of the hacking allegations, accepting assurances from executives from News International, Murdoch’s British press arm, that the problem was limited to a single rogue reporter. Assistant Commissioner John Yates told the Sunday Telegraph his July 2009 decision not to reopen the police investigation into the hacking claims “was a pretty crap one” in light of the complaints about phone intrusions then flooding in to the Yard from celebrities and politicians.
At the same time, at least five senior police investigators on the case discovered that their own cellphone messages had been targeted by the News of the World, according to the New York Times. That claim raises the possibility that police may have gone soft in their investigation because they feared having details of their private lives appear in the tabloid. Allegations about two of the officers did eventually appear in other news outlets.
A parliamentary committee will today grill four senior officers about their failure to properly investigate the phone hacking allegations.
The worst excesses uncovered in this case — phone hacking in particular — may now end. But both reporters and police say the practice of bribing low-level officers for information — the identity of a suspect, the time someone will be arrested — will not.
“This type of activity has been going on since the creation of the police service and no national newspaper worth its salt, if it wants to stay competitive, is going to stop doing this kind of thing,” a former police officer told Reuters.
“I don’t think you can end it, because there’s too much demand from the media,” said the former officer, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the subject.
ANGUISH One of the most serious allegations of police corruption to emerge from the hacking scandal involves convicted criminal Jonathan Rees, a private investigator used by the News of the World to obtain information on politicians, senior civil servants, central bankers and members of the royal family.
Rees was charged with murdering Daniel Morgan, his business partner in a private investigations agency they ran, in 1987. But after a protracted legal process that involved five inquiries into the killing the case against him collapsed in March this year. Prosecutors said important evidence had not been disclosed to the defense.
Commenting on the failure of the case, Detective Chief Superintendent Hamish Campbell said the initial probe of the killing, decades earlier, had been flawed.
“This current investigation has identified, ever more clearly, how the initial inquiry failed the family and wider public. It is quite apparent that police corruption was a debilitating factor in that investigation. This was wholly unacceptable.”
The failures may also have come because of pressure from the tabloid. Former Scotland Yard detective Dave Cook told Reuters he now plans to sue the publishers of the News of the World for harassment and hacking his phone while he was investigating the high-profile axe murder.
Rees emerged as a key figure in the scandal because former News of the World editor Andy Coulson reportedly hired him as an investigator when he ran the weekly. Prime Minister David Cameron later hired Coulson as his communications director.
Did Coulson know of Rees’s past — it also involved a prison term for conspiring to deceive — when he hired him? And did Cameron know of Coulson’s use of a criminal when he hired him to work at Number 10?
Alastair Morgan, brother of murder victim Daniel, wants answers. While the authorities conducted numerous probes of the killing itself, “they’ve never done an inquiry into the mishandling of the case.”
“There’s a deeply unhealthy and corrosive relationship between the News Of the World and the Metropolitan police,” Morgan told Reuters.
“We’ve only just begun to delve into it.”
Will that relationship now end?
Tony Dyhouse, a security expert at Britain’s ICT Knowledge Transfer Network, a multi-industry forum on innovation, told Reuters he believed the current furor would deter most journalists from phone hacking, even as technology made it easier to intercept communications and spy on digital devices.
“Now it is blatantly shown to be illegal, I think people will think twice about doing this if they have something to lose. I don’t think most journalists would do this again. I think it will move more to an organized-crime sort of scenario, someone who doesn’t care about breaking the law.”
But Rob Mawby, a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Leicester, told Reuters journalists will never get everything they want through the official channels, “so there are always going to be opportunities.”
“Where there’s information that people want … officers will be on that ‘invitational edge of corruption’ and some officers will give in to that invitation.”
He said once the latest scandal and inquiries were over, things would get “dangerous” again as the focus moved elsewhere. “Once there’s been a crackdown it slips below the surface again and it’s more difficult to detect and deal with. It’s always going to be there.” Still, it may be possible to cap. Robert Mark was confronted with widespread corruption at the “Met” when he took over the force in 1972. His drive against graft eventually led to the departure or prosecution of hundreds of officers with ties to criminals.
“I had never experienced institutionalized wrongdoing, blindness, arrogance and prejudice on anything like the scale accepted as routine in the Met,” he later recalled of his arrival at the force. Today, the Met says it takes graft more seriously than ever. Its website says it has a directorate of professional standards with 460 officers who probe abuse among the force’s 32,000 officers and an almost equal number of support staff and backup officers. Of Scotland Yard’s total 3.6 billion pound ($5.7 billion) budget, the directorate’s share is about 31 million. Graeme McLagan, a former BBC home affairs correspondent and author of “Bent Coppers,” a study of Scotland Yard’s anti-graft fight, agrees corruption has lessened over the years.
“You still get corrupt cops,” he told Reuters. “But they are doing it individually. It’s much less organized. Previously you’d get whole squads or sections of squads who would be corrupt.
“Now it’s individual officers who do favors for criminals or for family members who have ties to criminals or for intermediaries of some kind.”