London police shoot the messenger

By Jack Shafer
September 16, 2011

By Jack Shafer
The views expressed are his own.

London’s Metropolitan Police, who helped cover up the U.K.’s phone-hacking scandal for the better part of a decade, have finally figured out how to crack the case. Attack the press.

The Guardian, which kept the story alive after Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World minions, top politicians, and the cops throttled it, reports that the Metropolitan Police have requested a court order to force two of its reporters, Amelia Hill and Nick Davies, to surrender their confidential sources from their July 4 Milly Dowler phone-hacking story. Hill has already been questioned by police.

The Met is making its demand under the  Official Secrets Act, which is usually invoked in national security cases. In 1985, Ministry of Defence employee Clive Ponting was prosecuted under the act for divulging information about the sinking of an Argentinean ship during the Falklands War. In 2002, counter-intelligence officer David Shayler was convicted of giving secret documents to a newspaper. In 2003, U.K. government employee Katharine Gun was charged under the act with leaking to a reporter email from the National Security Agency requesting help in bugging the United Nations offices of six countries.

But the act’s fine print also criminalizes leaks of “damaging” information by government officials that could impede the prosecution of criminal suspects. It’s through this window that the police hope to push their court order.

Although I’m appalled by the Met’s assault on the freedom of the press (as we ACLU sympathizers like to say), I’m mollified by the fact that after years of dilly-dallying, the Metropolitan Police are finally taking the phone-hacking case seriously—even if they are punishing a pair of reporters whose only crime is having uncovered long-term wrong-doing that the police previously entombed. The real criminals in the phone-hacking scandal are, of course, the newspaper editors and reporters who hacked phones or ordered them hacked; the private investigators who did the journalists’ illegal bidding; the newspaper executives (Rebekah Brooks? James Murdoch? Les Hinton?) who facilitated the crimes; and the police who, for reasons of self-preservation, pushed the scandal under the carpet.

The circular logic behind the Met’s request for a court order delivers more torque than a spinning Ferris Wheel: The police want the Guardian‘s reporters to surrender the confidential sources who blabbed about the illegal phone-hacking, arguing that the stories are impeding an investigation. But the police had for years deliberately ignored the information that was ultimately leaked to the Guardian! There was no police investigation for the Guardian to “impede” until the Guardian brought the facts to the public’s attention and the public demanded that the police do their job!

Had the Guardian reporters not “impeded” the police investigation, News of the World journalists and their like-minded colleagues in the press would have remained undeterred in their efforts to break the law to break news. Likewise, we probably would have never learned that News of the World hacked a dead girl’s phone, simultaneously interfering with a police investigation and giving the girl’s parents false hope that she was alive.

That the police have a grudge to settle with the Guardian and the press goes without saying. The press has been making life miserable for the cops. Earlier this summer, the Guardian‘s Davies reported that police have collected thousands of pounds of bribes from a detective employed by journalists. Reuters’ Mark Hosenball also reported the existence of e-mail traffic okaying the payment of a “four figure sum” by News of the World to a police contact. (Cops hate it when you reveal the source of their donut money.) In 2007, Andy Hayman, the lead police investigator in the phone-hacking case, left the force in the wake of questions about his professional conduct. His destination: a post as columnist for Murdoch’s Times of London. Over the summer, Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson was forced to resign when his personal links to a News of the World editor arrested in the hacking investigation were revealed. Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who neglected to reopen the phone-hacking investigation after he reviewed it in 2009, also resigned this summer following assertions that he had mucked up the probe.

How badly did Yates neglect the investigation? Between 2006 and autumn 2010, nobody in Scotland Yard “bothered to sort through” the “11,000 pages of handwritten notes listing nearly 4,000 celebrities, politicians, sports stars, police officials and crime victims whose phones may have been hacked by the News of the World,” as the New York Times‘ Don Van Natta Jr. reported in July. Said Yates in defense of his investigative priorities, “I’m not going to go down and look at bin bags.”

Stephenson, Yates, and Hayman have recently been cleared of misconduct in the case, but it’s a rare police force that doesn’t hassle the press for exposing its transgressions and embarrassments. The best way to grade a news organization is to ask when the government last subpoenaed its reporters. If it’s been longer than two years, the news organization hasn’t been doing its job.

The Guardian provides a perfect example of no good deed going unpunished. The explicit target of the court order is the Guardian journalists, but the unsubtle message to leakers of police misbehavior everywhere is this: Do the right thing and we will smoke you out and send you—and your sources—to jail.

The Guardian‘s Dan Sabbagh asked an excellent question on Twitter this afternoon: Why didn’t the Met police go after the Telegraph with the Official Secrets Act after it published—in defiance of Parliament—its 2009 investigation of the misuse of expense budgets by members of Parliament? Sabbagh’s analysis is dead-on: If airing evidence of Parliament’s wrong-doing before the authorities have sanitized it isn’t “impeding” an investigation, nothing is.

This isn’t the first time the police have tried to shut down the Guardian‘s phone-hacking investigation, as it reports today. In December 2009, Commissioner Stephenson tried—unsuccessfully—to convince the paper that its coverage of the affair was overblown. But last summer in testimony to the select committee investigating the scandal, he reversed himself and conceded the Guardian had been right to pursue the story.

When police botch a case, as the Metropolitan Police have, usually nobody but the press will investigate. When the police go crooked, as bribe-taking members of the Metropolitan Police are believed to have, you can’t always depend on the internal affairs department to set them straight. Your better bet is an unfettered press. Instead of harassing the Guardian with court orders, the cops should be buying Davies and Hill drinks.

That’s something even former Police Commissioner Stephenson might salute now.

******

By my own yardstick, I am a failed journalist. Never has any police force subpoenaed me. If the Met has any spare court orders, won’t someone please e-mail one of them to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. For faster delivery, send them to my Twitter feed. (This RSS feed rings every time a new Shafer column goes live. This hand-built one rings every time a correction is filed.)

PHOTO: A traditional lamp stands outside a Metropolitan Police station in central London February 1, 2011. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

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