“Unhealthy and corrosive”: UK media’s cosy ties to police

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 cosy, 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. Prosecu-tors said important evidence had not  been disclosed to the defence.   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.”

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