A very very British scandal

The first few months of 2012 have seen renewed efforts to suppress interest in the relations between the British ruling class, its press and its police. However, despite strenuous measures, the stench keeps lifting the lid on the corrupt relations that underpin the way the British ruling class holds on to power. When the scandal came too close to the Prime Minister in July 2011, Cameron was forced to set up a public inquiry, headed by senior judge Lord Leveson, with the task of investigating ‘the culture, practice and ethics of the press’, and making recommendations for press regulation.

When the British ruling class wants to bury a problem, traditionally it sets up such judicial inquiries, with labyrinthine terms of reference and with the expectation that public interest will have been diverted by the time the long-awaited report appears. The Leveson Inquiry has failed in this first expectation. With the growing number of arrests by the Metropolitan Police’s Operations Weeting and Elveden, the Inquiry is exposing deep depravity and it is hitting the headlines.

Operation Motorman

The scandal has been running for almost a decade. In 2003 the Information Commissioner’s office launched Operation Motorman, an investigation into widespread criminality involving most of the British press. Detailed information was recovered from the files of a private investigator, Stephen Whittamore, who was hired to get information. The evidence included the names of hundreds of journalists who had used his services to gain access to the Police National Computer and the DVLA, for example, in order to discover private information like hospital records, criminal records and ex-directory phone numbers. There were 17,489 orders on file, and among the targets were murder victims and their close relations. Alec Owens, Operation Motorman chief investigator, gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry that his boss and the Information Commissioner blocked any prosecutions of journalists despite evidence of thousands of crimes.1 Eventually the Information Commissioner published a report, What Price Privacy?, which failed to name any journalists or any of the victims and deliberately understated the number of offences. Whittamore was prosecuted in 2005 for a minor breach of the Data Protection Act and was given a conditional discharge. Owens and his team were not invited to give evidence. Owens kept a copy of all the evidence he had collected and has handed it over to the Leveson Inquiry and to Strathclyde Police. In a final act of intimidation, three days before Owens was due to give evidence to the Inquiry, his home was raided by Cheshire police and he was questioned about breaching the Data Protection Act.

So, three years before the first tip of the phone hacking iceberg concerning the News of the World (NoW) royal correspondent Clive Goodman and private investigator Glen Mulcaire became public, the government and the police were content to allow the British press to break the law on an industrial scale. This laissez faire attitude to crime exists only insofar as it coincides with the interests of the ruling elite. It is, for instance, allowable for tax dodgers but not for so-called welfare benefits ‘cheats’. The ruling class was happy to turn a blind eye to phone hacking by the media in return for its loyalty.

The crisis erupts

This gentlemanly agreement broke down when News International, NoW’s publisher, failed to stem the tide of allegations of phone hacking, and most importantly, Andy Coulson, Downing Street press officer and former NoW editor, was forced to resign because of his involvement.2 At this point, both Prime Minister Cameron and media mogul Rupert Murdoch were in a cleft stick. Cameron had foolishly avowed his complete confidence in Coulson; Murdoch had championed Rebekah Brooks, former NoW editor and chief executive of News International, News Corporation’s British arm. Murdoch was desperately trying to protect his takeover bid for BSkyB and his son James Murdoch from being tainted by the phone hacking fall-out. Cameron opted for the Leveson Inquiry decoy: Murdoch opted for scorched earth by closing News of the World and pledging co-operation with the police investigations. Murdoch established a clean-up committee to supervise the handover to police of mountains of evidence held by News International, the existence of which it had previously denied (see Education Notes, p3). The takeover bid for BSkyB was withdrawn.

Police operations

Under pressure to finally do something, the Metropolitan Police established three interlinked operations: Weeting to investigate phone hacking; Elveden on police corruption and Tuleta on computer hacking. Up to 13 March 2012, 23 people had been arrested by Operation Weeting, most of them journalists including Rebekah Brooks (twice), her husband (close friend of Cameron) and Andy Coulson. 24 people have been arrested by Operation Elveden, including Rebekah Brooks, an MoD employee and a member of the armed forces. All have been bailed to appear at future dates.

The investigations are being run by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Ackers who gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry stating that only 170 of the possible 3,870 victims of phone hacking have been contacted so far. In sharp contrast to the evasive evidence of her colleagues (see below), she told the Inquiry that the Sun newspaper had a ‘network of corrupted officials’ across bodies such as the police and Ministry of Defence. She alleged that one individual had received £80,000, while one journalist made payments to sources totalling more than £150,000 over a period of years. In response to this conspicuous clarity, Attorney General Dominic Grieve immediately announced that he had received ‘a complaint’ about this evidence and would be investigating to see if it had prejudiced future criminal investigations.

The three stooges and a few more…

The three senior police officers responsible for halting the early phone hacking investigations, Clarke, Yates and Hayman all gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry.

Peter Clarke, former Assistant Commissioner (AC), claimed that News International ‘closed ranks’ during the phone hacking investigation and failed to co-operate. This was undoubtedly true and Clarke offered it as a major reason for not taking the investigation further. It is not clear how many Scotland Yard investigations have been terminated because the criminals would not play ball.

John Yates, former AC who resigned in 2011 following revelations of his close relationship with Neil Wallis, former NoW deputy editor, who he hired as a PR consultant for the Met, gave evidence via satellite link from Bahrain where he is advising the local police force! Yates decided not to re-open the hacking inquiry in 2009 after examining the evidence for eight hours. He admitted that he wined and dined with Wallis on numerous occasions in expensive restaurants but claimed that none of this affected their professional relationship. The crunch came when he was asked at the Inquiry to comment on an internal NoW email where the news desk editor asked crime reporter Lucy Panton (more on her later) to ‘call in those bottles of champagne’ by getting Yates to divulge information about a terrorism plot. Clearly a very different sort of profession was at issue. In retrospect, Yates thought, he might have ‘handled things differently’.

Former AC Andy Hayman tried very hard to make a good impression at the Inquiry. The best way to achieve this, he clearly thought, was to remember nothing and blame everyone else. Hayman was responsible for the closing down of the earlier investigation into phone hacking, and like his colleagues argued that anti-terrorism efforts were more important. Curiously the expenses register throws up some of the same names as Yates: Lucy Panton and Neil Wallis lavishly wined and dined with Hayman. It was Hayman’s expense account that caused his early ‘retirement’ from the Met, having spent £19,000 in two years on his corporate credit card, with an additional £2,000 from ACPO. The secret investigation by Gwent Police has never been made public. The Home Affairs Select Committee report sums him up:

‘Mr Hayman's conduct during the investigation and during our evidence session was both unprofessional and inappropriate. The fact that even in hindsight Mr Hayman did not acknowledge this points to, at the very least, an attitude of complacency. We are very concerned that such an individual was placed in charge of anti-terrorism policing in the first place. We deplore the fact that Mr Hayman took a job with News International within two months of his resignation and less than two years after he was – purportedly – responsible for an investigation into employees of that company.’

On 13 March Dick Fidorcio, chief public relations officer for the Met, currently on ‘extended leave’ pending an inquiry into the PR contract he entered into with Neil Wallis, gave a fascinating insight into the workings of media relations with the Met. He helped out Lucy Panton (yes, the same Lucy Panton), who was under pressure from her editor, by allowing her to use his computer at Scotland Yard to write up a press report about the reception former Scotland Yard Commander Ali Dizaei had had in prison after he was jailed (he was assaulted). Funny that! Lucy Panton, former NoW crime reporter, was arrested as part of Operation Elveden on 15 December 2011. The Guardian reports that she is married to a serving Met detective.

Scream if it hurts

As the evidence has emerged at the Leveson Inquiry, voices have been raised attacking both the Inquiry and the whole notion of press regulation. In response to the arrest of 11 Sun journalists, a Sun former political editor complained that the tabloid was ‘not a swamp that needs draining’ and that a police ‘witch-hunt’ was making press freedom worse than in former Soviet states. London Mayor Boris Johnson and his sidekick Kit Malthouse have both attacked the Inquiry and according to education minister (and Times columnist) Gove ‘The Leveson Inquiry into press standards is having a “chilling” effect on free speech.’ Daily Mail editor-in-chief Paul Dacre argued in evidence to the Inquiry: ‘Let’s keep this all in perspective. The banks didn’t collapse because of the News of the World. Neither did the paper cause August’s riots or prompt MPs to steal from the constituents they represent through expenses fraud.’

When they all scream loudly, at least we know it’s hurting.

Flogging a dead horse in more ways than one…

The news that Rebekah Brooks, when she was News International chief executive, was the recipient of a Met police horse, Raisa, brokered by ex Met commissioner Blair, filled the press with jokes about hacking and being taken for a ride. What it hinted at is the extraordinary close relationship that exists between News International and the British establishment.

It didn’t stop at PM Cameron having a ride. The Telegraph reported in July 2011 that almost a quarter of all lunches, dinners and other hospitality enjoyed by special advisers at Downing Street was paid for by News International. In the first seven months of the Coalition government, News International treated Downing Street advisers to hospitality on 26 occasions out of the 111 events listed on an official hospitality register. This entertainment stretched to wining and dining Gabby Bertin, Cameron’s official spokeswoman, on nine occasions including a trip to Wimbledon.

This is not just a feature of the present government. It has now been admitted, after decades of denials, that Mrs Thatcher did meet with Rupert Murdoch in advance of his taking over Times newspapers in 1981, a prelude to defeating the print unions and sacking thousands of workers. Murdoch is known to have had close relations with the Labour government under both Blair and Brown.

And don’t expect that Murdoch’s ambitions have come to an end. James Murdoch, the son, has been taken out of harm’s way, stepping down as executive chairman of News International and banished to New York – but he still chairs BSkyB. We can expect the takeover plan to be rekindled at a more favourable time. To quieten the anxieties of staff at the Sun following the arrests in February, Murdoch launched the Sun on Sunday as a replacement to NoW, keeping alive his considerable stake in the British newspaper industry.

With an eye to the future, and in case anyone is under the illusion that Scottish independence will deliver a free press, Murdoch has already held a meeting with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond: ‘Murdoch was keen to express his view that the current debate on Scotland’s constitutional future continued to make Scotland an attractive place for inward investment’, the press reported. Murdoch gave strong assurances that News International is ‘intent on consigning phone hacking to the past and emerging a better organisation for it’. You bet!

Carol Brickley

1.  See Leveson Inquiry website: www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/evidence/?witness=alex-owens.

2.  See FRFI 222, August/September 2011, ‘The British state – networks of corruption’ for an account of the closure of News of the World and the Home Affairs Select Committee hearings on phone hacking.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism 226 April/May 2012

 

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