Police tiptoed around News International as if in the presence of a sleeping baby
Brian Cathcart: Police tiptoed around News International as if in the presence of a sleeping baby
05 Sep 10

Why are people queueing up to sue News International in the phone hacking scandal? Because, so far, the company has always paid such people large sums of money to shut up and go away. Why is the company doing that? I think you can work that out for yourself.

A much more testing question is, why did Scotland Yard, with the blessing of the Director of Public Prosecutions, fail to investigate the phone hacking matter properly? And why were police so reluctant to tell those people who might have a case against the company that they were probably the victims of hacking?

As the New York Times reminds us today, and as the Commons media select committee set out very clearly last February, detectives had leads that even Clouseau could not have missed.

There was the contract phone-hacker Glenn Mulcaire signed with the News of the World, undertaking to investigate a senior figure in the football world. Then there was the News of the World email containing transcripts of dozens of voicemail intercepts involving that same figure. That’s quite a start, but there was more.

Police had the name of the person who wrote the email: News of the World journalist Ross Hindley. And the first name of the person for whom the transcripts were made: Neville. The paper employed only one person called Neville: its chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck.

You are a detective, charged with investigating crime. What do you do with this information, bearing in mind that you know the hacking in question is very likely to be illegal?

If you are Assistant Commissioner John Yates of the Metropolitan Police, apparently, you file it under “Too much bother.” Neither Thurlbeck nor Hindley nor the victim nor Mulcaire nor anyone else, so far as we know, was ever asked a single question by police about these matters. Their phone records, computers and document files were never examined. Nothing.

When Yates appeared before the Commons select committee (to which I was an adviser), he offered the following excuses: the law on hacking is complicated and was almost untested in court; the police have limited resources and have to go for the easiest convictions; the evidence was old; there was no way of showing that the Neville in question was Thurlbeck; if approached, Thurlbeck was “99.9 per cent certain” to say “no comment”.

Ask yourself: do you recognise this kind of policing in modern Britain? Is this timidity and caution characteristic of the Met in the 21st century?

Yates himself is famous for the unrelenting exhaustiveness of his inquiry into cash for peerages. Thousands of documents sequestered, key figures (including Tony Blair) interviewed to within an inch of their lives, months of press frenzy and… no charges.

Here is something else to consider. As the New York Times rightly points out, the most sensational news angle in this whole affair is that the voicemails of Princes William and Harry were accessed by the News of the World. Had that been known at the time that the scandal broke in 2006, it is fair to assume that the public would have been far more outraged by the offences than they were.

This was a national newspaper systematically and illegally eavesdropping on the Queen’s grandsons. These were the sons of Princess Diana, whom the press are supposed to treat with a measure of respect and restraint as atonement for the harassment of their mother.

And the security implications are quite something: a terrorist tapping those phones might learn information about the princes’ movements which could be useful in preparing an assassination attempt.

All the ingredients are there for a class-A public furore. If, at the time the scandal first broke, the targeting of the princes had been made public, the public would have demanded the most thorough investigation possible, with the entire News International organisation up to Rupert Murdoch placed under the microscope. The News of the World itself would have been shamed as never before.

But somehow that did not happen. This most damaging information about the News of the World did not come out. Prosecutors chose not to name the princes among the five hacking victims listed in the charges against Mulcaire and NotW royal editor Clive Goodman. The court and the public did not hear that William and Harry had been bugged.

In fact the Metropolitan Police did not reveal that the princes’ phones had been tapped until they were forced to by the Commons committee last year. Why not?

As the New York Times points out, the relationship between the Metropolitan Police and News International is now a matter of public concern. Would any other organisation or corporation whose staff were under suspicion have received such gentle treatment at the hands of detectives and prosecutors?

Yates questioned the prime minister himself over cash for peerages, causing fury in Downing Street, but when it came to the News of the World his officers tiptoed around as if in the presence of a sleeping baby.

There are calls for the Met to reopen the investigation, but that will not be enough. The last time they were asked to do that they completed their reinvestigation in a matter of hours and announced that everything was just fine. No, if we want to know what happened the case must be reviewed and re-investigated by another force, and the Independent Police Complaints Commission should start organising that now.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University.