Sir Paul Stephenson has just resigned as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police – the last few days have brought serious questions about his judgement, and with a statement from the Home Secretary scheduled for tomorrow it seems he decided to jump before he was pushed.
If you’d asked us at the start of the week whether this was likely, we’d have laughed – Assistant Commissioner John Yates looked like a more probable scalp. But if the phone hacking scandal is like a leaky ceiling, it’s one that’s had an irritating drip (the Guardian) for a few years that you could ignore, but in the last couple of weeks water has come pouring in torrents – and just when you think you’ve put enough buckets down to catch it all, another chunk of plaster falls off and you’re left wondering where you’re supposed to look next.
With events moving so fast, we thought we’d take a few moments to round things up – what’s been happening at the Met is just as concerning as what’s been going on at News International, and before we can properly get our heads round Stephenson’s departure we should probably look at the background.
What the hell is going on?
Since 2006, the Met have been insisting that the News of the World phone hacking scandal was limited to Clive Goodman, former NotW Royal Correspondent, and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. When they were given, respectively, four and six months in prison back in 2007, the Met declared the job done. Then, slowly, it started to look like the rot went further: Gordon Taylor was paid £700k to drop a legal case that would have named other NotW journalists. The Commons media select committee found it “inconceivable” that other NotW staff wouldn’t have known about hacking.
So the Met, faced with new information, decided in July 2009 to review the original investigation. Sky News has a snippet of Assistant Commissioner John Yates stating that the case had been subject to
“careful investigation by very experienced detectives. It has also been scrutinised in detail by both the CPS and leading counsel. They have carefully examined all the evidence… No additional evidence has come to light since this case has concluded. I therefore consider that no further investigation is required.”
We now know that John Yates spent just eight hours making that decision and that Yates himself now admits the thing was “pretty crap“.
The story didn’t end there, though. The New York Times got former staffers to claim Andy Coulson knew about the hacking. Max Clifford got a payoff. So the Met opened up the investigation again in 2010, got nowhere, and closed the case in December. However, in January this year the Met announced they’d had new information from News International and set up Operation Weeting. It’s this investigation that’s been uncovering evidence of hacking the phones of Milly Dowler, 7/7 victims, 9/11 victims, relatives of war dead… the sorry list goes on.
And all this evidence had been sitting in bin bags at Scotland Yard since 2006.
Why didn’t the Met investigate properly?
We’re still largely waiting to find that out, but one reason put forward by the Met is that the original investigation was conducted by the counter-terrorism unit, who at the time of Mulcaire’s arrest had their hands full with the trans-Atlantic terrorism plot (Operation Weeting has been put under the jurisdiction of the Specialist Crime Directorate). They also say that News International weren’t particularly forthcoming with information. Funny: we suspect murderers and burglars aren’t that keen to hold their hands up either, yet the police manage to bust them.
Of course, we can speculate on other factors that may have influenced the Met, though they deny absolutely any and all impropriety and these are only allegations. (Can we be any clearer about that? Please don’t arrest us.)
Senior Met officers enjoyed rather good relationships with News International papers, including nice lunches, dinners and receptions. It’s been alleged that News International made payments to police officers (though we’re yet to find out which ones). Investigating officers found themselves the subjects of hacking suspicions – were they afraid if they dug any deeper, their own private lives may have been exposed? The Met also employed Neil Wallis, former NotW executive editor and arrested last week by officers investigating phone hacking, as a PR advisor on £1k a day between October 2009 and September 2010, a fact Sir Paul Stephenson neglected to mention to Boris Johnson and which has contributed to his downfall.
What’s Sir Paul Stephenson got to do with it?
As of the last couple of days, quite a lot. Sir Paul, you may remember, was brought in by Boris Johnson after he de facto booted out the previous commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, for being a bit too close to Labour. Except Sir Paul isn’t without his ties either – he also features on the list of nice dinners with News International and today found himself accused of accepting a £12k freebie from Champneys spa, which also employed Wallis to do its PR.
What’s far more concerning is the decision to hire Wallis at all, and why he felt it wasn’t worth informing the Metropolitan Police Authority – which Boris chaired until January 2010. The Mayor has been a staunch defender of the police’s investigation even until this week, but on Friday referred Wallis’s employment to the judge leading the public inquiry into phone hacking, a sign that Sir Paul’s head was on the block.
Why has he resigned?
According to his statement, Stephenson has
taken this decision as a consequence of the ongoing speculation and accusations relating to the Met’s links with News International at a senior level and in particular in relation to Mr Neil Wallis
Yet he then goes on to deny any knowledge or involvement in anything:
I had no knowledge of, or involvement in, the original investigation into phone hacking in 2006 that successfully led to the conviction and imprisonment of two men. I had no reason to believe this was anything other than a successful investigation. I was unaware that there were any other documents in our possession of the nature that have now emerged…
In 2009 the Met entered into a contractual arrangement with Neil Wallis, terminating in 2010. I played no role in the letting or management of that contract.
I have heard suggestions that we must have suspected the alleged involvement of Mr Wallis in phone hacking. Let me say unequivocally that I did not and had no reason to have done so. I do not occupy a position in the world of journalism; I had no knowledge of the extent of this disgraceful practice…
Is it worth wondering what Sir Paul Stephenson, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, did have knowledge of? Because looking at this statement, it wasn’t much.
Once Mr Wallis’s name did become associated with Operation Weeting, I did not want to compromise the Prime Minister in any way by revealing or discussing a potential suspect who clearly had a close relationship with Mr Coulson… Similarly, the Mayor. Because of the individuals involved, their positions and relationships, these were I believe unique circumstances.
This seems… bizarre. Surely there are ways for the police to inform our political leaders of issues like this – or is Sir Paul having a sly pop at David Cameron and Boris Johnson for their connections to the suspects? Is it also worth pointing out that Stephenson didn’t seem to feel it was worth even telling the Guardian the Met had Wallis on the payroll, even when he was one of the people trying to convince the paper to drop its stories?
So, to sum up: Stephenson insists he’s done nothing wrong, his integrity is intact, but the media storm around the phone hacking scandal is too much of a distraction (which feels like an unfortunate echo of Andy Coulson’s “when the spokesman needs a spokesman, it’s time to move on”).
And Boris Johnson?
As we’ve said, Sir Paul Stephenson was Boris’s man and despite some serious displeasure on Friday, the Mayor has taken to the 24 hour news channels still praising the former Commissioner:
I have complete confidence in his honour and propriety… he has been a remarkable servant of this city… He wants to give someone else the chance to carry on his work and crack on with bringing crime down… I think that’s a very brave thing for him to do.
(As heard on BBC News 24)
Does the Mayor fully appreciate the potential seriousness of what has occured? He’s not always taken phone hacking seriously – not least at Mayor’s Question Time this week, which degenerated into a highly inappropriate chucklesome piece of political bantering. The list of possible conflicts of interest we outlined above should surely be cause for concern, yet for the most part Boris has been happy to blithely back his coppers all the way. We know he’s not chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority any more (that’s now his deputy, Kit Malthouse), but shouldn’t he be attempting to hold the police to some sort of account?
What’s also unfortunate for the Mayor is that he’s at risk of the same accusations of being compromised as the officers who had their phones hacked – Johnson was told in 2006, during the original investigation, of evidence that his voicemail had been targeted. He declined to press charges, saying “I had no particular desire to get involved in a court case that revolved around some extremely unpleasant interference in my private life”, though he would have given evidence had his input been considered crucial to the prosecution.
What this also reveals is that Boris Johnson knew, from 2006, that the extent of phone hacking spread further than the royal aides whose privacy Goodman and Mulcaire were jailed for violating. Whether either of these two were suspected of hacking Johnson’s phone we don’t know, and we don’t know if the Mayor knows or if he asked that question. But it does make us wonder why he decided to describe it as “a load of codswallop cooked up by the Labour Party” when he had a personal insight into it.
Ultimately, so what?
Sir Paul Stephenson’s resignation should not be the end of the matter. Only a couple of months after the verdict that Ian Tomlinson was unlawfully killed, we’re back in a situation where we’re forced to ask whether the people in charge of the Metropolitan Police are fit to lead it. The tentacles of phone hacking are spreading back into some of the Met’s most ignominious episodes – the family of Jean Charles de Menezes, on discovering their phones were targeted, sent a letter to David Cameron asking for Andy Hayman’s relationship with News International to be looked into (Hayman was found by the IPCC to have misled the public about de Menezes wearing a bulky jacket, etc) – and revealing parts of the organisation to be, if not absolutely corrupt, then certainly guilty of astonishing misjudgements.
A police force capable of astonishing misjudgements is not what London wants, and certainly not what London deserves. Operation Weeting not only needs to get to the bottom of what News International did and knew and possibly covered up, but also what the Met did and knew and possibly covered up. Just like closing down the News of the World and Rebekah Brooks quitting should not be seen as the end of the story, an attempt to brush everything under the carpet, so a few resignations at Scotland Yard – and if Stephenson has gone, surely John Yates cannot be far behind – should not stop a thorough investigation into practices and values at the Met. This shit is happening far too often, and needs to be stopped.