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Thursday, March 01, 2012 

An ex-policeman's lot is not a happy one.

I realise I've been just ever so slightly fixated on phone hacking/the Leveson inquiry this week, something I shouldn't really be apologising for. This is definitely the most important part of Leveson's work so far, which isn't to belittle the "first module", just that this section is the part where the police's relationship with News International is being examined in real detail for the first time. We all knew that the tabloid press was treating certain individuals abysmally, as they have been for decades; what we didn't know is how the Metropolitan police in particular had become so close to certain sections of the media that it was posing a clear conflict of interest.

We heard today then from both John Yates and Andy Hayman on how they'd often shared lunch or even the occasional glass of expensive fizzy wine with journalists. Hayman, who left the Met partially as a result of an inquiry into his expenses claims, thought absolutely nothing of it at the time, just as how in his witness statement he explains why he couldn't possibly be stepping over the line by working for the Times as it was an entirely separate part of News International to the News of the World. He naturally doesn't mention that he also didn't think there was any conflict in ridiculing both John Prescott and the Guardian in the pages of the Times when he had almost no real role in the initial phone hacking investigation whatsoever, dismissing out of hand the idea that there had been any sort of cover-up or failure on the behalf of the police to properly go through the evidence they had initially seized.

Of the three giving evidence today, Peter Clarke was the most convincing but also the most infuriating. He more than reasonably maintains and continues to believe that the investigation of terrorist plots was far more important than the serious but not life threatening hacking of mobile phones. The problem is that he continues to exaggerate his case, as he did at the time. No one can dispute that between 2004 and 2007 there was a significant terrorist threat to this country, as the number of plots disrupted shows. There may well have been as he says 70 separate investigations going on, but the number of those that resulted in convictions for serious crimes is far lower. Indicative of his attitude then and now is that the media were "at that time ... frequently sceptical and critical of the UK police counter terrorist effort" and that they "needed to be made aware of the reality of the threat the country was facing" (paragraph 16 of Clarke's witness statement). This is absurd: only a few commentators in the broadsheets and on TV suggested that the threat was being exaggerated, whereas the tabloids were practically willing an attack. Ian McEwan in the Graun the day after 7/7 wrote that everyone had been expecting it.

Clarke, for instance, still claims that the police discovered a "ricin factory" in North London in his witness statement, when there was no ricin, the recipe Kamel Bourgass had for making it was bogus, and his plan to use it had he achieved the impossible would not have worked. He goes on to mention Operation Rhyme, which led to the conviction of Dhiren Barot who definitely was a "veteran jihadist" as he describes him. Where he heads into the land of make believe is in describing his ambition to mount an attack using "radiological devices". In practice, this amounted to the impressively infeasible plan to harvest the tiny amounts of Americium from smoke detectors, something which Barot admitted in his plan was only ever likely to lead to "disruption or panic", ala the antics of the "radioactive boy scout" David Hahn. His other ideas were similarly ambitious, such as constructing bombs of such power that they would blow through tube tunnels and flood the system, or alternatively the use of gas canisters as explosives to bring down buildings, both of which it seems those back in Pakistan whom he was reporting to thought ridiculous. Not Clarke though.

Clarke explains his reasoning for not widening the initial phone hacking inquiry beyond the royal family and a few token others firstly as he thought this would increase the risk of the then secret investigation being compromised and evidence lost as a result, and that secondly that if he were to do so those others who were victims would continue to be victimised while the investigation took place. While this might have been compelling at the time, it looks ridiculous now. As we've learnt, the investigation was compromised by the police themselves through contact with the NotW, and it's alleged evidence was hidden/destroyed by the company in any case. Second, while phone hacking for the most part did stop with the arrests of Goodman and Mulcaire, it was ridiculous that the potential victims were not subsequently contacted so they could take their own private action if they wished as Clarke had supposedly decided they should be. It in fact took an incredible five years before this began to happen under Operation Weeting.

The biggest ultimate failing is that Clarke decided there should not be an "exhaustive analysis" of the evidence seized in August 2006, which was mainly Glenn Mulcaire's notebooks. Even a sub-standard analysis of the notebooks showed there were hundreds of potential victims, as Andy Hayman today admitted. Clarke says he could not justify "the huge expenditure of resources" this would entail when the terrorist threat was its height, and it was unrealistic that the task could have been transferred elsewhere in the Met when it was felt that the original investigation success. This was the wrong decision, plain and simple, and it led to all the subsequent ones. As Michael White writes, politicians were arrested on the basis of far less evidence during both the cash for honours inquiry and the Damian Green leak case. Clarke may not have been influenced by News International directly in his decisions, but those doing the investigation cannot possibly have been so blind to the information they had, even if it was not properly analysed. It really was there in black and white.

As for John Yates, his fall from grace is summed up in how he's currently providing "advice" to the Bahrain government on policing. As well as his friendship with Neil "Wolfman" Wallis, we also learned today of how he was pally with the NotW's crime editor, Lucy Panton, who is happily married to an officer at the Met. One email from the news editor at the paper to Panton suggested that it was time for her to "call in all those bottles of champagne" and get Yates to advise on the discovery of the printer bomb in 2010.

This may well have been a jokey message, and Yates said there was being an "unfortunate emphasis" put on it, but it sheds light on the others he would have been affecting when he had to "establish the facts" following the Guardian's revealing of the Gordon Taylor settlement and then the "for Neville" email in 2009. He at least admits as he has done before that he got it wrong, yet he took only 6 hours to decide there was nothing new in the Guardian's story that would justify reopening the inquiry, just as he did when the New York Times published their investigation a year later. Leveson suggested that at the least Yates could have ordered a "scoping exercise" rather than a full reappraisal but it seems even that wouldn't have been a justifiable use of resources. For Yates, an ex-policeman's lot is most certainly not a happy one.

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