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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Three former police officers from the Metropolitan Police Service, who were involved in the original phone hacking investigation appeared before Leveson to discuss the relationship between the police and the press today.
In a gruelling three hour testimony, John Yates, former assistant commissioner to the Met Police, was questioned rigorously by both Robert Jay, QC, and Lord Justice Leveson.
Jay explored a catalogue of diary events in which Yates met with a number of journalists, including Neil Wallis, an executive at News International, Colin Myler, former News of the World editor, and Lucy Panton, crime editor of the News of the World.
Jay repeatedly asked Yates if he believed these appointments, at venues such as the Ivy Club, were appropriate. Yates explained “In terms of what we know now, in terms of what has happened, I suppose it is [inappropriate], but it wasn’t at the time.”
He added: “I think it’s hugely important that senior officers of the police have a relationship with the press.”
Yates was asked about an email to Lucy Panton about an Al-Qaeda plot, and story. The email mentioned Yates as “crucial” and added that it was “time to call in all those bottles of champagne. Yates dismissed this as a “turn of phrase” and denied ever being plied with champagne by Panton.
The former Met officer was also asked about an occasion when he had drinks with James Hanning of the Independent. Yates described him as an “interesting interrogator” and added “he challenged some of my preconceptions on phone hacking. It was interesting to talk to him because he was giving a completely different view on what happened. He saw a “grander conspiracy”.
When asked if Hanning had shared with him his belief that knowledge of phone hacking went right to the top of News International, Yates denied this.
Yates accepted making a “fundamental misjudgement” in his definition of phone hacking victims, but also explained that at the time it was not considered a particularly serious matter.
In relation to revelations earlier in the week that Lord Prescott was not made aware of the extent of the information which had been gathered about him, Lord Justice Leveson voiced his concern that “persistent requirements” made by Yates, did not reveal the answer.
Yates replied: “It is deeply regrettable, and I can’t account for it, I’m afraid.”
Peter Clarke, former Assistant Commissioner of Specialist Operations appeared before the court first, and described the “complicated relationship between the police and the press. Clarke explained that at different levels within the police, there were different levels of relationships with the media.
He said: “I felt that that it was useful to have more informal meetings with groups of journalists from across media outlets at lunches to discuss broad issues of strategy”
When asked by Jay if there was favouritism towards a particular news agency, Clarke said; “I was totally disinterested between them. If my memory serves me, it tended to be on one occasion we would have broadsheets, another red-tops, another broadcasters. We had representation from across the media groups.
During his time as the head of the anti terrorist branch SO13 9between 2002 and 2008), Clarke said that any relationship with the press was to promote the public interest.
Clarke explained that “public interest is paramount” with regards to relations between the press and the police. He added: “any engagement with the media was to try and help protect the public, and to keep them safe.”
He said: “I was not interested in trying to make the police look good, that was not my agenda, it was to try and support the counter terrorist operation at that time.
In relation to the expansion of the inquiry which Clarke admitted he never wanted to happen, he described the pressure put on the SO13 unit, during the time of the original phone hacking investigation, telling the court that at the same time, there were 70 separate terrorism inquiries underway.
He explained that he could not have justified releasing officers to work on the phone-hacking investigation, because of the terrorist threat.
Putting it bluntly, Clarke told the court that phone hackers “don’t kill you, terrorists do.”
Clarke told the court that the 11,000 pages of Mulcaire’s notebooks which were seized were not analysed at the time because the investigation would have been an “enormous undertaking” and would have involved “dozens of officers over weeks if not years.”
He added: “The fear was what that resource commitment would lead us…it was disproportionate to other competing demands at the time.”
Clarke also discussed the obstruction from News International following the arrest of Glenn Mulcaire on the 8 August 2006. He said: “In terms of the investigation, it became immediately apparent that we weren’t going to get any co-operation from News International. Usually, companies bend over backwards to try and preserve their reputation and assist in inquiries. This was a closing of the ranks from very early on.”
Throughout his testimony, Clarke remained firm that all those involved in the case were not affected by News International, “those officers conducted an honest inquiry, they were uninfluenced, as was I by News International.”
Andy Hayman, former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner also appeared at the hearing.
He told the court that he entered his role with a “reserved” approach to the media. He said “I didn’t feel I needed to engage because I felt that sometimes that kind of relationship was difficult.”
But Jay’s questioning led to the discussion of several meetings between Hayman and Lucy Panton and Neil Wallis. Discussing a “working lunch” in March 2007, Hayman said; “I can’t remember the purpose, I can remember the lunch, but it would not be anything different to anything other than what I’ve already explained, the support that newspaper was trying to give the ongoing terrorist inquiry.” Jay revealed that this lunch was paid for with a Metropolitan Police Service American Express card.
Hayman supported earlier comments from Clarke, that resources were struggling to balance between the phone hacking investigation and on-going terrorist inquiries.
Hayman said: “Without wishing to sound alarmist, the pot was actually running dry, so we had nowhere really to go. Within the Met that was exactly the same … that would have a massive attack on the counter-terrorism.”
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