Revealed: a true Mafia moment
by Brian Cathcart
From a day of breathtaking revelations, here is one: on or just before 16 September 2006 Rebekah Brooks received a phone call from a police officer who briefed her at length about the phone hacking investigation then under way.
By that time (although they would insist otherwise for years) the Metropolitan Police already knew that hacking had been conducted on an industrial scale and that several News of the World staff were probably involved, but Brooks was assured in that call that only one reporter would be prosecuted and that her company would not be troubled further.
It looks for all the world like a Mafia moment. The police – supposedly our police – discreetly tipping off a corporate boss about a criminal case involving her company and then assuring her that it would all be safely buried.
Who the officer was, we don’t yet know. He or she was identified in documents at the Leveson inquiry only as ‘a cop’. But we may legitimately ask, given some of the other new evidence, whether that officer was on the News International payroll. It seems perfectly possible, and it would round things off nicely.
Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun and Micahel Gove, the education secretary, have been complaining that this scandal was blown out of proportion. Read the latest witness statements and you may well wonder whether enough is being done to tackle it.
It was hard to know whether the day was worse for the Metropolitan Police or for News International, and perhaps it is fitting that they should be in the pillory together given how cosy they have been.
With the police, we now see far more vividly than before that the story they repeatedly presented to public and parliament between 2007 and 2010 was quite different from the story as they knew it themselves.
Once, they said that hacker Glenn Mulcaire’s records were an almost impenetrable chaos of scribblings stored loosely in three or four bin bags. Now we learn that the data was neat enough to allow detectives to compose extensive spreadsheets in just a couple of days. Once, they said there were 36 victims and they were all informed; now it is clear that as long ago as August 2006 police knew there were hundreds, that they had a very long list of their names, and that only a handful were told.
With News International the revisions of history are just as emphatic. The suggestion has been made that the police corruption investigation was a mean-minded pursuit of reporters who had done no more than entertain legitimate sources; this was exposed as a cynical smokescreen. Payments and retainers running to tens of thousands of pounds are involved, and even so the police are carefully tiptoeing around any risk of compromising legitimate journalist sources.
But it was the interplay between the company and the police force that was most disturbing. Brian Paddick, the former senior police officer, relied on documents from the Met itself as he described the events of 2006, when detectives arrested two men and swept up all the evidence.
So what did they do next? Having quickly abandoned the idea of searching the News of the World accounts department because the company objected, the police then also abandoned plans to issue a production order requiring disclosure of documents. Next, and for reasons equally unknown, they abandoned a plan to inform the victims, a process that would have generated publicity and perhaps lawsuits against News International.
Instead there was that phone call to Brooks, giving her detailed information about the case just five weeks after the arrests and promising that the investigation would not be widened unless new evidence emerged.
Desperate days lie ahead now for the police, who must either come out with their hands up or try to justify behaviour that is, at the most charitable, utterly bewildering. As for the company, it tells us that this was all in the past and the culture has changed. They of all people should know that it is not that simple.
If this scandal were happening any other company – say, BP or A4e or RBS – the press would be demanding the resignation of the boss. And they would not be satisfied with the sacrifice of a figure such as Rebekah Brooks.
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and tweets at @BrianCathcart