April 6 2010
Something very worrying has been going on at Scotland Yard. We now know that in dealing with the phone-hacking affair at the News of the World, they cut short their original inquiry; supressed evidence; misled the public and the press; concealed information and broke the law. Why?
The problem goes right back to early 2006, when police started investigating allegations that somebody was listening to the mobile phone messages of people in the royal household. By May 30, as the Guardian disclosed yesterday, Scotland Yard had obtained telephone records which showed that, ‘a vast number’ of public figures had had their voicemail accessed without authority, but they chose not to fully investigate this evidence. On August 8 2006, they seized a mass of paperwork and computer records which included detailed evidence of interceptions and they chose not to fully investigate that either.
Why? The official version is that the anti-terrorist officers who were handling the inquiry into the royal phones lacked the resources to do more. But several senior Yard sources say privately that the inquiry should have been passed to other detectives, who deal with serious crime, and they fear that the failure to do so reflects a desire to avoid alienating the Murdoch papers.
The fact that the officer in charge of the inquiry, assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, later left the police and went to work for News International is not, they point out, evidence of corruption, but one senior current source said: “Unfortunately we have no control over what he does and doesn’t do. Is it distasteful? Some people say it probably is.”
Whether it was intended or not, the decision to cut short the inquiry certainly helped the News of the World. Apart from Clive Goodman, the royal reporter who was caught intercepting royal voicemail, not one single person from the paper was interviewed by police – and that includes his editor, Andy Coulson, now David Cameron’s adviser, who says he does not remember any illegal act during his time at the paper.
Even though the seized material included an email from a junior reporter sending the transcript of 35 intercepted messages for the chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, police chose not to interview either journalist – and then failed to pass the email to the Crown Prosecution Service, even though it directly related to one of the victims named in court and even though they now say that it was the only confirmed example of transcribed voicemail in all the mass of material they gathered. This raised the ire of the House of Common’s media select committee who concluded: “The email was a strong indication both of additional law-breaking and of the possible involvement of others. These matters merited thorough police investigation, and the first steps to be taken seem to us to have been obvious. The Metropolitan Police’s reasons for not doing so seem to us to be inadequate.”
So, the case came to court with only one guilty journalist alongside the paper’s investigator, Glenn Mulcaire, and only eight named victims – and not a word from Scotland Yard to indicate the scale of interception they had uncovered. When the Guardian last July started running stories which cast doubt on this version of events, Andy Hayman, wrote a column for the Times in which he said there was ‘only a handful’ of victims – apparently oblivious to the ‘vast number’ of victims recorded by his own officers’ report.
At the same time, the new assistant commissioner, John Yates, made a press statement which now seems misleading. He began by suggesting that he had established the facts of the case. He had not. It was several months later before his officers finally analysed the material which they had seized from Goodman and Mulcaire. We now know that it contains 4,332 names or partial names of people in whom they had an interest; 2,978 numbers or partial numbers for mobile phones; 30 audio tapes which appear to contain an unspecified number of recordings of voicemail messages; and 91 PIN codes of a kind which are need to access mobile phone messages if the phone’s owner has changed factory settings. Police were apparently also unaware that three mobile phone companies had traced some 120 customers whose voicemail had been accessed by Goodman or Mulcaire in a period of only 12 months.
And yet without having this information available to him, Mr Yates claimed to know the scale of Goodman and Mulcaire’s interceptions, explaining that while they may have had hundreds of potential targets, “our inquiries showed that they only used the tactic against a far smaller number of individuals”. He went on to claim that “Where there was clear evidence that people had potentially been the subject of tapping, they were all contacted by the police.” This was indeed what Scotland Yard had agreed with prosecutors but Mr Yates was apparently unaware of the fact that there were victims who certainly had not been contacted even though police had audio tapes or transcripts of their intercepted messages.
A Yard spokesman yesterday said: “John Yates strongly refutes any suggestion that he has acted improperly or issued misleading statements.”
In recent months, however, Yard sources have held misleading media briefings. In November last year, a senior officer claimed there were only some 600 names in the seized material. We now know there were more than 4,000. In February, two senior Yard sources claimed that the seized material contained no reference at all to the former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. We now know that two different documents name Mr Prescott as a target, although it is still not clear what actions Mulcaire took to gather information on him, because the Yard never attempted to investigate the interception of the communications of the second most powerful politician in the country.
In the same briefing, the Yard sources contradicted all their public claims by agreeing that they had evidence of ‘gross’ and ’systemic’ interception of voicemail by the News of the World’s investigator. They claimed they had not pursued this because the law requires them to prove that the voicemail was intercepted before it was heard by the intended recipient. Specialist lawyers say this is misleading: that intercepting voicemail, whether old or now, is certainly an offence under the 1990 Computer Misuse Act; and that it is probably also an offence under the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, although no court has ruled on the point. The Yard sources also claimed they did not need to say publicly that they had evidence of systemic interception, because this was explained in court in January 2007. A transcript of the hearing shows that that is not correct.
The Yard have gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent the disclosure of evidence. When the celebrity PR agent Max Clifford sued the News of the World for breach of privacy, the court ordered police to hand over any material about him in their possession. They did so – and took it upon themselves to redact it in a way which would have removed any reference to the involvement of the News of the World’s journalists. When the Guardian asked for numerical details of the seized material, they resisted for four months and breached the terms of the Freedom of Information Act before finally conceding.
They still refuse to say how many victims they warned during the original inquiry and how many more they have warned since the Guardian’s revelations last year. They refuse, too, to reveal the names or numbers of victims in the royal household, the military, the police and the government. They will not even tell the government how many of its own ministers were having their communications intercepted. And they continue to refuse to approach all suspected victims, forcing public figures to hire lawyers to find out for them.
Why? The answer to the question, like so much else at Scotland Yard, remains concealed. But the question will not go away.