The Metropolitan police’s senior press officer has told the Leveson Inquiry that she was not aware that the force had hired a former executive editor at the News of the World as part of a PR consultancy arrangement until after his contract had been terminated.
Giving evidence this morning, Sara Cheesley said she only became aware of Neil Wallis’s £24,000-a-year PR consultancy at Scotland Yard in July 2011. Wallis’s company, Chamy Media, provided communications advice to the Met on a part-time basis from October 2009 to September 2010.
Cheesley said she was “a bit surprised” when she learned of the contract. An incredulous Lord Justice Leveson said: “I am just surprised that you didn’t know anything about him at all.”
Also giving evidence today was the Met’s communications chief Dick Fedorcio, currently on extended leave from Scotland Yard since August pending an investigation into Wallis’s contract arrangement.
Leveson questioned him about the possibility of a “reputational risk” for the Met hiring Wallis months after the Guardian reported on phone hacking at the now defunct tabloid. “And here you were contemplating giving a chap who was deputy editor at the time?”
Fedorcio, who has been the Met’s director of public affairs since 1997, responded that he did not see it that way at the time. In his witness statement he wrote that “on a professional basis, Nell Wallis fully met my requirements; we knew nothing about Neil Wallis that would be to his detriment.”
“There was no indication that he was suspected of involvement in criminality — he had never been named, implicated or questioned regarding phone hacking; he had never been required to resign over the issue at the paper; the phone hacking investigation was closed; and Nell Wallis was no longer employed by the News of the World and was now setting up his own media business,” Fedorcio continued.
He added that former assistant commissioner John Yates had asked Wallis in August 2009 if “there was anything that was going to emerge at any point about phone-hacking that could ’embarrass the MPS, me, him or the Commissioner’,” and that Yates received “categorical assurances that this was the case”.
“As John Yates had obtained and recorded this assurance I felt there was no need for me to repeat the question,” Fedorcio wrote.
In his oral testimony he revealed he was “surprised” about the extent of the out-of-hours meetings between Yates and Wallis, but said he was aware that the two “got on well” and that there was “banter” between them over football matters. Fedorcio added that, had he known the pair were close, he might have thought that hiring Wallis was inappropriate.
He also clarified that Wallis himself had put his name forward for the position over a lunch, “rather than it being proposed by anyone else”, as Ferdorcio had suggested to the Home Affairs select committee in July 2011.
He also revealed that on one occasion in 2010 he let former News of the World crime editor Lucy Panton type a story from his email account on his standalone computer, as the reporter was “under pressure” from the tabloid to file copy. He recalled that Panton had arrived at an end-of-the-week meeting, which Fedorcio had set up with the tabloid paper in order to work with them at an earlier opportunity on stories, with her notes for a story on former Metropolitan Police commander Ali Dizaei, who was jailed for corruption in 2010.
“I was present in the office throughout this time, and therefore got advance sight of a story about an MPS officer,” he wrote in his witness statement, admitting to the Inquiry later that it “may have been an error of judgment”.
The Inquiry continues tomorrow, with evidence from crime reporters.
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