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.
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.”