LONDON — Immortalized in the pages of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, Scotland Yard is a globally renowned symbol of policing, its constables the cherished guardians of Britain’s upright rule of law.
But as the phone-hacking scandal here explodes, the bobbies of Scotland Yard are weathering their worst crisis in years, one that has portrayed some of the force’s highest-ranking officials as bumbling Keystone Kops and painted others as woefully corrupt beat cops willing to accept bribes in excess of $160,000 to pass on juicy tidbits to the press.
"We are sorry" the full-page ad began Saturday, as Rupert Murdoch tried to halt a phone-hacking scandal that has claimed two of his top executives. (July 16)
As it exposes murky ties between Britain’s muckraking tabloid press and police, the scandal is damaging the public’s faith in the Yard — nickname of London’s Metropolitan Police, once famously headquartered on a foggy street named Great Scotland Yard. At stake is the prestige of a 182-year-old force, with an independent inquiry set to probe corruption and mismanagement at all levels of the institution and threatening the jobs of top officials at a time when they are gearing up for a massive operation for the 2012 Olympic Games.
The scandal centers on allegations that Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid for years used illegal methods for newsgathering, including passing fat envelopes of cash to officers and tapping into the private messages of thousands of British citizens, from crime victims to celebrities to members of the royal family.
After making just two arrests in 2006 and considering wrongdoing at the tabloid an isolated incident, Met officers dropped the case. Despite revelations in 2009 by the Guardian newspaper about far wider misdeeds at News of the World, officers reopened the case only under mounting pressure earlier this year. Until then, police investigators insisted to politicians, the press and the public that there was no more to the case.
In the spotlight now is the relationship the force of more than 51,000 officers has with Britain’s muckraking tabloids and whether that influenced their judgment. On Thursday, for instance, they arrested News of the World’s former executive editor Neil Wallis, only to concede the same day that he had worked for Scotland Yard as a media consultant from October 2009 through September 2010. He was paid $38,000 a year to come in two days a month, despite public allegations at the time that the tabloid had engaged in widespread illegal activity during his tenure.
That came after current and former top Met officers were hauled before a parliamentary committee this week for what amounted to a public humiliation for some, with lawmakers openly laughing at John Yates, its assistant commissioner who was once in line for the Yard’s top job. Calls for his resignation escalated this week after information emerged that he had dined with News Corp. editors while News of the World was still under investigation.
“We’ve heard some extraordinary things from the Met this week,” Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg said Thursday. “Not least that a high-ranking officer felt it acceptable to be wined and dined by senior newspaper executives under investigation.The Met now has a big job on its hands winning back the public confidence that has been lost."