In an extraordinary statement released today the Metropolitan Police have claimed that there is a “deliberate campaign to undermine the investigation” into allegations of corrupt payments by journalists to police officers and to “divert attention from elsewhere“. According to the “Guardian” fear of leaks forced the police to bring forward the arrest of Andy Coulson and Clive Goodman. The paper goes on to say that the final straw for officers was the article published in today’s “London Evening Standard” alleging that the “News of the World” paid police officers for personal information about the Queen and other prominent members of the royal family.
The police statement leaves little doubt as to who is being blamed for the leaks:
At various meetings over the last few weeks information was shared with us by News International and their legal representatives and it was agreed by all parties that this information would be kept confidential so that we could pursue various lines of inquiry, identify those responsible without alerting them and secure best evidence.
However we are extremely concerned and disappointed that the continuous release of selected information – that is only known by a small number of people – could have a significant impact on the corruption investigation”.
Over the past 6 days there have been series of extraordinary leaks about the police investigation. First, on Tuesday 5 July 2011 the BBC’s Robert Peston reported that
“News international has uncovered e-mails that indicate payments were made to the police by the News of the World, during the editorship from 2003-7 of Andy Coulson“
This disclosure – apparently based on emails provided to the police some two weeks earlier, distracted attention from the flood of hacking revelations – some relating to the time when Rebekah Wade was editor of the “News of the World” – and focused coverage back on Andy Coulson. Then on Sunday 10 July 2011 News International paper the “Sunday Times” (not previously noted for its phone hacking coverage) disclosed that
“An internal News International report in 2007 uncovered evidence indicating that hacking was more widespread than previously admitted and that money might have been paid by the paper’s journalists to police. The Met was not told at the time but has now been given a copy. One News International source said: “We were sitting on a ticking timebomb.” James Murdoch, now deputy chief operating officer of News Corporation, was not told about the report when he became executive chairman of News International in 2007”
In other words, Mr Murdoch was in the clear but other executives were in it up to their necks. The same story was expanded on by the well-informed Mr Peston the same day – he told us that the emails were obtained by Will Lewis.
Then today, 11 July 2011, Mr Peston told us that
“News of the World e-mails uncovered by News International in 2007 contained evidence that the Sunday newspaper was paying a Royal Protection Officer for the contact details of senior members of the royal family, their friends and their relations“.
Later on the same day, it was reported that Gordon Brown and his family had been targeted by the “Sunday Times” and the “Sun”.
Faced with this torrent of revelations the exasperation of Metropolitan Police is, perhaps, unsurprising. Although many of the stories are very damaging to News International they are thought by the police to place its investigations in jeopardy. Some commentators have suggested that it is useful to “News International” to “have all the stories out at once”. It is also noteworthy that a number of the stories have gone out of their way to stress the positive role played by Will Lewis and the new “News International” crisis management team. None of these stories have implicated either James Murdoch or Rebekah Brooks.
Nevertheless, the leakers are playing a dangerous game. The story is moving so fast that the next twists and turns have become impossible to predict. It seems likely that a hacking inquiry will be set up in the near future with full powers to call for documents and cross-examine witnesses. By the time it reports the media landscape may have changed for ever.