Leveson Inquiry, Week 12 – Senior Met officers in the witness box

The second week of module two, into the relationship between the press and the police, heard from several former senior Met officers. The witnesses were questioned over their personal dealings with editors and journalists, the original 2006 investigation into phone hacking and the 2009 review conducted by then assistant commissioner John Yates.

The Monday morning hearing began with Sir Paul Stephenson, former Met commissioner. He said the Met had developed a “fixed mindset and a defensive mindset” in 2009, when the original investigation was reviewed by Yates, and there was a flawed assumption that the original investigation was satisfactory. He added: 

“What we didn’t do is go back and challenge the reasons for those decisions in 2006. We didn’t go back and challenge the reasons why it was limited. Had that taken place we might have been in a better place.  In so much as it felt like a successful investigation, the fact this did not feel a priority was a relevant factor in terms of using resources. I then go on to think we got ourselves hooked on a defensive strategy that we would not expend significant resources without new evidence.”

 He argued that this was a “perfectly logical situation to be in”,  provided that the assumption about the original success of the operation was correct.

In his written statement to the inquiry Sir Paul said Kit Malthouse, chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, had referred to hacking allegations as driven by a “level of hysteria” created by politicians and the media, and said the force should not be devoting further resources to Operation Weeting. In 2010, London Mayor Boris Johnson said phone hacking allegations had been substantially investigated and accused the Guardian and Labour party of whipping up the scandal to embarrass Andy Coulson, then David Cameron’s communications director.

The Guardian published the phone hacking allegations in 2009 but Operation Weeting was not launched until January 2011. Sir Paul said Yates had reassured him further investigation into the allegations was not needed. He said:

“I continued to have intermittent discussions with AC Yates as the Guardian maintained its coverage on this issue. I continued to be reassured by him that there was nothing new in the allegations that would warrant the reopening of the investigation.”

The statement said a “scoping exercise” had been undertaken by Yates after fresh allegations were printed in the New York Times in 2010, and the Crown Prosecution Service were informed by his team there was “insufficient evidence to mount a prosecution”.

Sir Paul told the inquiry Yates was the natural officer to conduct a review of phone hacking evidence in 2009 but admitted Yates’ friendship with Neil Wallis, former News of the World deputy editor, may have appeared inappropriate in the context. Sir Paul was asked about his own links to Wallis, with whom he had met several times during his time as commissioner. He resigned last year after criticism for the hiring of Wallis as a consultant to the Met’s press office in 2009.

He told the inquiry he was not aware Wallis was a person of interest in the investigation until April 2011 and said he regretted entering into a contract with the former News of the World employee. He said it would have been “clumsy” to meet with Wallis after his name was associated with hacking.

The former commissioner had also come under fire for an extended stay at Champneys in Hertfordshire following an operation, after it was revealed the public relations company run by Wallis had been hired by the luxury brand two months before his visit. He maintains he was not aware of the connection before or during his recovery at the spa.

Sir Paul’s hospitality register, shown to the inquiry, recorded a significant number of meetings with national newspaper editors and journalists during his time as commissioner, including a 2009 dinner with Yates, Wallis and the Met’s head of press Dick Fedorcio. He said he sometimes personally paid for drinks with press as he was uncomfortable with the idea of billing the public purse for alcohol.

During the afternoon hearing the inquiry heard from Dame Elizabeth Filkin, former parliamentary commissioner for standards and author of The Filkin Report, otherwise known as ‘The ethical issues arising from the relationship between police and media’, and Roger Baker and Her Majesty’s inspectorate for the northern region and a former chief constable in the Essex police force

Dame Elizabeth, whose report was published in January this year, said lower ranking members of staff within the Met saw complimentary gifts from the press, including tickets to expensive sports events, as excessive. She added:

“Many of the police officers and staff were obviously highly shocked at the amount of hospitality that the senior people appeared to be receiving… many of the lower ranks felt people were ‘filling their boots’ and that was a very general view. From what people had seen from the publication of the registers, most of the people that I spoke to within the Met felt that people had been receiving excessive hospitality.”

Lord Justice Leveson told her:

“The great advantage of the work you’ve done is that it rather foreshadows some of what I have to do, and therefore it would be perfectly in order, would it, for me to use what’s been said to you for the purposes of the inquiry.”

Dame Elizabeth spoke to police, staff, politicians and journalists, and told the inquiry she exercised her own judgment on whether what she was being told was reliable. She went on to highlight several issues, including the favouring of some journalists and newspapers by the Directorate of Public Affairs, which would offer stories to certain reporters to keep others out of the press, and said transparency should be a priority for the Met in dealing with the media.

Roger Baker told the inquiry that as chief constable, he never accepted anything more than tea, coffee or water from members of the press, saying he regarded meetings with the media as “on duty”.  He added:

“It makes me sound extremely dull… I didn’t need to be in a more convivial environment – we just got on and did business. In truth, there was never occasion to do that. I always found tea, coffee or water suffices.”

Baker said he recognised an “intensity” at the Met, due to the size of the force and it being on the doorstep of the national media. He advocated for more clarity in the relationship between police officers and journalists, and said off-the-record briefings should be limited and recorded in order to safeguard the public. He added:

“There needs to be a real clarity on what is appropriate and what isn’t. If no clarity on rules, you can’t regulate.”

The inquiry heard the HMIC team compiling the ‘Without Fear or Favour’ report, headed by Baker, spoke to officers involved in Operations Elveden and Weeting, but did not want to interfere with current investigations.

On Tuesday, the morning hearing began with evidence from Lord Condon, commissioner from 1993 to 2000, who said his professional relationship with the media was a significant part of his role and would at times completely dominate his life. He said:

“For every waking minute I was on duty, that relationship with the media would be the single thing that would be dominating my life. Major terrorism event in London, there would be an insatiable demand for the commissioner of the day to be saying things about it, to be reassuring the public, to be giving information…Rightly or wrongly, the commissioner is seen as the voice of the police force.”

In his written statement, Lord Condon described hospitality as “the start of a grooming process that can lead to inappropriate or unethical behaviour”. He told the inquiry he had preferred to meet journalists and editors on police premises, but would occasionally agree to visit media offices or restaurants. He said he remembered a meal with Stuart Higgins, then editor of the Sun, and had agreed to meet Max Hastings for lunch as he “always moaned about the quality of food at Scotland Yard”.

Lord Condon was responsible for introducing hospitality registers for the Met in 1998 and said it seemed to be “a sensible stepping stone in encouraging good behaviour”. He added:

“It seemed sensible to give some pretty clear steer around hospitality, gifts, hospitality registers. Every meeting with the press that involves hospitality should be able to pass what some people have described as the blush test: would you be happy for a local politician, a neighbour, a member of your family [to be present] – does this meeting feel right?”

The former commissioner told the inquiry he declined several offers to write an autobiography or become a media commentator after retiring from the force, as it would have taken him out of his “comfort zone”. He added:

“Having spent my career majoring on integrity, independence, being apolitical, it just seemed I would have to take decisions to be partial or be drawn into favouring one group over another.”

Lord Condon said police corruption in relation to the media was not a matter of concern when he began as commissioner and he had been disappointed by some of the issues leading to the inquiry. He told Lord Justice Leveson police corruption is cyclical, following a pattern of inquiry, remedial action, relaxation and complacency before the next scandal. He added: “It’s about human weakness and opportunity and those two are omnipresent.”

The inquiry also heard from former Met commissioner Lord Stevens. He was pressed by inquiry counsel Robert Jay QC on how he would have responded to the allegations printed in the Guardian in 2009. Lord Stevens said he would have gone where the investigation took him.  He added:

“I’d have gone on and done it. That’s what police officers are paid to do, to enforce the law… I would like to have thought the issues that the Guardian raised I would have picked up as commissioner. I think I would have been quite ruthless in pursuing it.”

Like other senior Met figures, Lord Stevens was questioned over his relationship with Neil Wallis, which he called “totally professional”. The former commissioner’s autobiography was serialised in News of the World and led to him writing several articles over a two year period in a column called ‘The Chief’, edited by Wallis. He was paid £5,000 for seven articles in the first year before his fee was upped £7,000 for the second. Lord Stevens said he lost most of the money after the Northern Rock bank collapsed and terminated the contract following the convictions of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, for hacking voicemails of the royal household, in 2007. He said he heard further information about “unethical behaviour” relating to News of the World headlines. He added: “I would never have written the articles if I had known what I know now.”

Lord Steven’s hospitality register had not been recovered from Met records but his diary, made available to the inquiry, showed frequent meetings with editors and journalists with national newspapers between 2000 and 2003. He said he had been determined not to favour any newspaper group.

Lord Stevens was questioned over three lunches with Rebekah Brooks, then Wade, and former husband Ross Kemp at the Ivy in 2002. Stevens said they had been meetings regarding his charity, and that separate meals with Wallis and their wives was in regard to the same charity. He added:

“Ross Kemp very kindly agreed to front an evening in which we were going to get charitable donations. My wife was at two of these and on one of those occasions I personally paid at the Ivy.”

The diary also showed several meetings with editors including Paul Dacre and Max Hastings. He said other meetings with Rebekah Brooks related to Sarah’s Law, a campaign run by the Sun following the murder of Sarah Payne.

During the afternoon hearing Chief Constable Lynne Owens, a former Met assistant commissioner currently at Surrey Police, said she refused to meet members of the media outside of Scotland Yard and that journalists found it strange that she would not meet them for lunch or in a social setting.

She said she would not drink with journalists as there would be an expectation she would say something indiscreet, and said she found it “abhorrent” that officers could leak inappropriate information to the press.  She added:

“The fact that people would be prepared to release that data is frankly beyond me and I don’t believe people like that should be in the police service.”

Rober Jay QC asked the chief constable about her written statement, in which she claimed details of an investigation into a crime squad had been leaked to the media. It was not clear whether the information had come from the officers in question, someone else in the Met, or the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Owens said she had off-the-record conversations with journalists around the royal wedding, on the understanding information could be published after a certain time when it was no longer sensitive. She said:

“There’s a balance at needs to be struck because it is clearly very important that the media have access to accurate, timely information because that does inform the public, and is therefore the heart of public confidence…It’s difficult to get balanced and measured responses from the media. The sensational and the exciting are the stories that tend to hit the headlines.”

The Wednesday morning hearing began with evidence from former commissioner Lord Blair, who admitted the Met could have taken a different approach to phone hacking allegations at the News of the World. The former commissioner, in charge of the force from 2005 to 2008, said the then deputy assistant commissioner Peter Clarke took a reasonable decision not to continue with the investigation following the arrests of News of the World journalist Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire in 2006, but that a different approach could have been taken.

He told the Leveson Inquiry he was informed in 2006 his phone number appeared in Mulcaire’s notebook. He said:

“I see the reasonableness of [Clarke’s] decision but it would have been possible to make a different decision which would have to escalate it up to those parts of the organisation who could take a different decision. I didn’t ask the question which now looks so obvious, as to how many other [potential phone hacking victims] there were.”

Lord Blair said he did not understand why then assistant commissioner John Yates“made the decision at the speed that he did” not to reopen the hacking investigation following further allegations printed in the Guardian in 2009. He added: “From what I can see, that decision was just too quick. Why could you not have gone back with all those allegations and looked further at what the material did actually say?”

Lord Blair told the inquiry he had no recollection of being asked to give authority for the loaning of a police horse to Rebekah Brooks in 2008 and it was “not a big deal”. He said the Met’s head of press Dick Fedorcio, due to give evidence to the inquiry next week, maintains Lord Blair discussed the matter with Brooks over a lunch on the same day Fedorcio set up a meeting for Brooks to arrange the loan. He added:

“What I understand Mr Fedorcio will say is that he was telephoned by Rebekah Brooks asking about this arrangement… and that then he arranged for her to go down and see the inspector in charge of horses and then have a discussion about it and this actually seems to have happened on the day that I had lunch with her, and what I understand Mr Fedorcio is going to say is that this was discussed at the lunch. I have absolutely no recollection of that.”

His diary showed four recorded meetings with Rebekah Brooks: a phone call in 2005, a meeting in 2006, a lunch in 2007 and an exchange after the Sun ran the headline “Blair is doomed”. A lunch with News International’s Les Hinton in 2006 and a lunch with News of the World editor Colin Myler, deputy editor Neil Wallis and Fedorcio in 2007 were also shown. Blair said he met the Crime Reporters Association once a month and had one-to-one interviews with journalists once every two months. He added:

“I didn’t have any dinners at all with editors or journalists with an exception with one friend who was a friend before I became commissioner, which was entirely social.”

Lord Blair said staff spent too much time worrying about press coverage and felt the Met management board should have less contact with the media, adding too many meetings with journalists were “unrecorded and unnecessary”.

He named former assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, who gave evidence to the inquiry last week, as an officer investigated in 2007 after information about a conspiracy to kidnap and behead a Muslim soldier was leaked to the media. Blair said telephone records showed a “high volume of traffic” on Hayman’s phone to journalists.

The inquiry then heard from Bob Quick former assistant commissioner at the Met, who said he came under scrutiny from the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday after heading an investigation into then shadow immigration minster Damian Green. He said the investigation revealed Green had been leaked confidential information from senior civil servant Christopher Galley and was “perfectly legitimate”. Despite this, he received little support from the Met and was criticised in the press for his approach.

A wedding care hire business run by Quick’s wife became then became the target for a series of Mail on Sunday articles. The former officer said he became aware of the situation after a client contacted his wife to say a journalist had been enquiring about the business. The paper then contacted Dick Fedorcio to say they were running a story claiming serving police officers were working for the business as chauffeurs. When Quick replied saying this was untrue, a different story was printed claiming the business posed a security risk, as he was responsible for counter terrorism. He told the inquiry: “I felt that I ought to ask for the [Met’s] support but I didn’t feel, honestly, that it was forthcoming.”

He said he was surprised when former assistant commissioner John Yates told him the inquiry was “doomed” and advised him to drop it, and was concerned that Yates had been close with Mail journalist Stephen Wright. He added:

“We had just seized a load of evidence that we hadn’t the opportunity to examine yet… it didn’t seem a tenable argument.”

Quick was responsible for an investigation into Yates’s contact with the media after Gus O’Donnell, former cabinet chief secretary, expressed concern over his dealings with the press. Quick said he did not believe there had been any leaks but recommended the assistant commissioner’s phone records be audited. Yates refused, saying he was too well connected. He repeated he was “very well connected” when pressed by the officer.

Quick was asked about Operation Nigeria, a police investigation into detective agency Southern Investigations in 1999, which revealed corruption within the force. It was discovered a number of journalists, specifically from the Sun and News of the World, had contact with the agency. He said:

“It became apparent that some officers were being bribed to provide stories. I took the view that was a threat to the organisation and compiled a short report proposing that we might deal with that by way of an investigation looking at financial transactions. In particular we believed journalists paying the bribes were not paying them from their own funds. Intelligence revealed payments of £500 to £2,000, therefore we believed they were claiming that money back from their employers.”

Quick submitted a report recommending an investigation into police corruption to assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, who decided it would be too “risky” to continue. Quick said he disagreed with Hayman’s assessment but felt there was enough evidence to prove journalists had been bribing officers.

In the afternoon hearingTim Godwin, former deputy commissioner, told the inquiry he had “different values” to other senior officers at the Met, who frequently socialised with journalists and editors. He added:

“We pretty much had common values about honesty and integrity. I think the difference would be that there was one style favoured by some members and another style, which was my style, where I didn’t feel comfortable in that environment.”

He said he had a conversation with Yates about his relationships with members of the press but did not realise the extent of his friendship with Neil Wallis until hearing evidence given to the inquiry.

Robert Jay QC did not question Godwin over his hospitality register as there was“nothing of interest” to examine. Lord Justice Leveson said this was significant in itself as it displayed a difference in approach between Godwin and some of his colleagues.

Godwin said he had limited contact with the media but would meet journalists in his office and attend events such as the Crime Reporters Association Christmas party.

Next week the inquiry will hear from Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick (MPS), Sir Dennis O’Connor (HM Inspectorate of Constabulary), Sara Cheesley (Senior Information Officer, MPS), Dick Fedorcio (Director of Communications, MPS), Jeff Edwards (Crime Reporters Association), Sandra Laville (Guardian), Paul Peachey, (Independent), Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas (Times), Mike Sullivan (The Sun) and Stephen Wright (Daily Mail).

This post has been cross-posted on the Inforrm website

 

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