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.
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."
The scandal is laying bare the seedy world of British tabloid journalism and the pivotal role corrupt police officers have long played in it. Rebekah Brooks, the high-powered News Corp. executive who resigned Friday in the wake of the scandal, had testified in Parliament as early as 2003 that News of the World had paid police officers for information. The Met, however, says that since 2000, only two officers have been investigated for taking bribes from any British publication. And both were cleared of wrongdoing.
A former News of the World deputy features editor, Paul McMullan, said in an interview that the paper routinely paid cops for tips, with cash dished out from a safe “in the managing editor’s office.”
“That was true especially with Diana,” McMullan said, referring to the late Princess of Wales. “We would get calls from our police contacts telling us what airport she was landing in, and who was with her. That kind of information was worth several thousand pounds.”
He recalled one story he worked on when $5,000 worth of British pounds was paid to a beat officer who had found the daughter of award-winning actor Denholm Elliott — known for roles in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “A Room With a View” — impoverished and living on the streets. “He called us up and told us about it, and we covered the story,” he said. “He got the money, we got the story. She killed herself a few years later. I felt particularly guilty about that one.”
In addition to allegations of bribery — including reports in the Guardian this week that as many as five officers accepted News of the World payments in excess of $160,000 — Scotland Yard is under the gun for mismanaging the investigation into the phone-hacking scandal.
Yates admitted this week that the initial investigation launched in 2005 had been woefully flawed. Scotland Yard declined a request to comment for this article, referring to public statements by its top officials. Early this week, Yates called the choice not to move forward with a broader investigation earlier “a poor decision.” “We did not do enough,” he said.
Observers say Scotland Yard is now bracing for the fallout of an independent inquiry into the scandal, including involvement of at least a handful of its own police officers. But more significantly could be findings of systematic flaws within Scotland Yard’s management system that allowed the hacking investigation to fall between the cracks and corrupt officers to go unpunished.
“A few officers do things they shouldn’t, they are corruptible, and that is not shocking whether it’s the NYPD or the Met police,” said Tim Newburn, professor of criminology at the London School of Economics. “But what we will discover from the inquiry now is how and whether this was being managed higher up the chain of command, about a failure to act. The judge will be asking some quite searching and very difficult questions.”
Special correspondent Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this report.