Former commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Lord Blair, told the Leveson Inquiry this morning that he felt staff at the force spent too much time worrying about the press and that policing had become politicised.
“My determination was to spend less time on press matters than we were spending under my predecessor [Lord Stevens],” Blair told the Inquiry, citing processes of dealing with the media as being “exhausting” at times, and adding later that newspapers were “very difficult animals” to grapple with.
In his witness statement, Lord Blair, who was commissioner of the force from 2005 to 2008, wrote that there was a “significant problem” of a “very small number of relatively senior officers” being “too close to journalists”.
Rather than financial gain, Blair said he believed this was “for the enhancement of their reputation and for the sheer enjoyment of being in a position to share and divulge confidences”.
“It is a siren song,” he continued. “I also believe that they based their behaviour on how they saw politicians behave, and that they lost sight of their professional obligations.”
“I don’t know how the political genie can be put back in the bottle,” he said of press coverage of the police becoming too politicised, noting that political correspondents, rather than crime reporters, had covered both his and his successor Sir Paul Stephenson’s resignations.
He endorsed recommendations made by Elizabeth Filkin in her report on relations between the press and police, arguing that her comment that “contact is permissible but not unconditional should be nailed to the front door of the police station”. Yet he took issue with “a whole series of injunctions and sub-clauses” about dealing with the press.
Blair wrote in his evidence to the Inquiry that his relationship with journalists had “always been perfectly proper”. He told the Inquiry he had not had dinner with editors, with the exception of one who had been a friend before his commisionership.
His written evidence also revealed that he was told “certainly after 2006” that his official and personal telephone numbers appeared in files belonging to private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, and that they had been obtained in the spring of the same year. Yet Blair stressed, “I had no evidence that I had ever been hacked.”
He also echoed former Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke’s “perfectly reasonable” view that countering terrorism was a greater priority than investigating phone hacking. “We had closed Heathrow airport in the middle of the holiday season, there was enormous pressure,” Blair said.
“It really was the only show in town. Any conversation about this would have been way back on the agenda and relatively short.”
Yet he added that the 2009 decision of former Assistant Commissioner John Yates not to re-open the investigation in light of reports by the Guardian was “just too quick”.
“I don’t quite understand why John took that decision with the speed which he did,” he said, but stressed he did not believe Yates took the decision in order to placate News International.
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