Lovers of Life on Mars may have thought that DCI Gene Hunt was giving evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee yesterday. In fact, it was a real (ex-)cop, former Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman.
Since he was once head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist activity, there must be a more serious side to him than he presented to the committee. (There must be, mustn’t there?) But it was hard to discern as he gave a jaw-dropping explanation of his role in the phone-hacking enquiry and subsequent appointment as a columnist on the Times. Apparently it had been “a boyhood dream” of his to be a journalist. (One can understand reporters wishing sometimes that they were cops. It comes as a surprise that the dream goes the other way, too.)
Apart from giving us an opportunity to wonder whether the fictional Hunt had been based on Hayman or vice versa, little was learned about the investigation from Mr Hayman, or from Assistant Commissioner Yates (more about “Yates of the Yard” in a moment). The real story came from the former Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, who had been in day-to-day charge of the original investigation alongside his responsibility for conducting anti-terrorist work.
Two themes emerged from his evidence. First, the obstructive behaviour of News International and, second, the low priority accorded to the investigation, once the royalty hackers had been brought to book. Clarke told the committee “I was as certain as I could be that [News International] had something to hide”, reinforcing the point with the assertion that “This was a global organisation with access to the best legal advice … deliberately trying to thwart a criminal investigation.”
The MPs were having trouble understanding (weren’t we all?) why the police didn’t take a tougher line with News International – why they didn’t act like, well, like police in pursuit of a criminal. Seems obvious, really.
And this takes us to the nub of it. To break through News International’s obstruction, the police needed sufficient evidence to justify a reasonable suspicion that something was up. They did, of course, have 11,000 pages of evidence. But that seems to have been too much for the police working in the anti-terror squad.
Undoubtedly, they had a point. The terrorist threat is very real. And it was especially fresh in the minds so soon after the 7/7 bomb attack on London. Far better to be hauled in front of a select committee for letting hackers run amok, than suicide bombers. But there are other departments in the Metropolitan Police Force for whom investigating corporate misbehaviour could reasonably have been accorded a higher priority.
MPs also wondered why the police didn’t look at a sample of the evidence to see what might be there. Mr Clarke’s response was that the job was only worth doing if it were done properly.
And that, I think, was his big mistake. Doing a job “properly” doesn’t always mean turning over every stone. When I led the forensic team at one of the UK’s Big Four accounting firms, we knew that the key was to identify the one or two crucial elements that really turn a case. Turning over every stone was a luxury that our clients couldn’t always afford and didn’t always need.
And so it was for former Deputy Assistant Commissioner Clarke. He had an urgent need not to compromise his anti-terrorist work. But he was also “as certain as [he] could be” that News International were hiding something. What he needed was enough evidence to justify access to News International’s files. What he had was the files of News International’s private detective, Glenn Mulcaire. A preliminary review of those papers should have been conducted in order to see if they provided the reasonable suspicion needed to unlock the doors at News International. From what we now know, it seems that such a review would have been successful.
And so we come to “Yates still at the Yard”. We had seen the Assistant Commissioner before: during the “cash for honours” enquiry; in connection with the trial of Paul Burrell, former butler to Princess Diana; and in 2009 when he had been asked to review the position regarding telephone hacking by News of the World in the light of an article in the Guardian suggesting that the problem was more widespread than the two criminal convictions implied.
He had been asked by his superior officer to find out whether there was anything new which would require a further investigation. He concluded that there wasn’t. There was nothing new. Somehow, his conclusion came to be reported that there was nothing at all. But there was something. Something old: the same old 11,000 pages of evidence from the Mulcaire files; the same old belief that News International had something to hide; and, so it seems, the same old reluctance to look into it.
Life on Mars? You could almost hear the background music working through the Bowie repertoire. Under Pressure, Absolute Beginners, The Laughing Gnome …