The Met and the Media: The Long View

A waste of money, so some newspapers say. Legal bills aside, the Metropolitan Police spent over £41 million investigating the dodgy doings of journalists. On Friday 11 December this costly exercise was killed, to the relief of Mr Plod and Mr Pressman, when the Crown Prosecution Service announced that there was insufficient evidence to pursue any more phone hacking allegations. Costly and complex cases comprising Operations Elveden (payments to public officials), Golding (phone hacking by Mirror Group newspapers), Tuleta (computer hacking) and Weeting (phone hacking by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK).

Unease felt by the media and the Met alike. Writing for the Sun, Trevor Kavanagh complained:

Wives and children have been humiliated as up to twenty officers at a time rip up floorboards and sift through intimate possessions, love letters and entirely private documents …

Their alleged crimes? To act as journalists have acted on all newspapers through the ages, unearthing stories that shape our lives, often obstructed by those who prefer to operate behind closed doors.

A poisoning of police-press relations prophesied by The Times’s Sean O’Neill:

The result, I fear, is a press that is all too willing to bash the police at every opportunity because it has now seen bully-boy policing up close.

Hunter turns hunted. The Met turned up at fortress Wapping following the arrest of the News of the World’s royal editor Clive Goodman in 2006. Detective Chief Inspector Surtees was in charge of the mission:

We got to the desk of Goodman, we seized some material from the desk of Goodman. There was a safe on his desk, which was unopened. My officers were confronted with photographers, who were summoned from other parts of News International, and they were taking photographs of the officers. A number of night or news editors challenged the officers about the illegality of their entry into News International. They were asked to go to a conference room until lawyers could arrive to challenge the illegality of the section 8 (1) and 18 (5) and section 8 PACE authorities, and it was described to me as a tense stand-off by the officer leaving that search [Detective Inspector Pearce thought the staff “may offer some form of violence”]. The officer tried to get our forensic management team, our search officers into the building. They were refused entry, they were left outside. Our officers were effectively surrounded and photographed and not assisted in any way, shape or form. That search was curtailed. Some items were taken. The search did not go to the extent I wanted it to.

The Met’s troops on the ground have taken a hit too. No more “off the record” briefings. Thirsty workers beware: booze is now the exception, not the rule.

Will this game end? For it’s as old as the tabloids. Everyone likes a good story, especially crime. Nothing sells like sex and death. Who better to approach than a policeman? In return for a tip, the hack has his copy. As for the copper, he needs information too. Who better to approach than a journalist? Private enterprise. There’s a drink in it for everyone.

From the birth of the late News of the World in 1843, the editor’s assistant used to slip the duty inspector at Scotland Yard a bottle of whisky every Saturday. Before long, the Screws was the Met’s “trade paper”. A rather relaxed relationship which went on until 1919 when the Yard set up a press bureau “with the main objects of enlisting the co-operation of the press in police matters and preventing them from buying information from police and others.” And it worked, so said a report into an investigation into the workings of this new office:

The Committee passed very lightly over the question of improper leakage of information through police officers. It did not think anything of the kind occurred except in isolated instances due to “inadvertence or indiscretion.” 

Yet only two years later Ralph Blumenfeld, editor of the Daily Express, was whinging to Brigadier-General Sir William Horwood, Met Police Commissioner, that someone had leaked the details of a recent burglary case to the Daily Mail. Horwood replied:

Some of this enterprise, as we both know, takes a highly reprehensible form, and I am doing my best to stop it. You know how difficult these irregularities are to detect and what little practical help I get from the newspaper world itself to detect them.

The charge was repeated in 1927 following the murder of 21-year-old typist Constance Oliver in Richmond Park. Howell Gwynne, editor of the Morning Post, took his complaint to Sir William Joynson-Hicks, the Home Secretary:

Quite between ourselves – and please do not give me as the source of information to anybody – the Newspapers Proprietors’ Association have been discussing the question of police bribery by the newspapers … . A newspaper of eminent respectability telephoned to the police at night and asked whether there was any news of the arrest of this man. Apparently they had got some inkling of it outside, but the reply was that he had not been arrested. The next day another newspaper came out with a full account of the arrest; and it was assumed that the information was in the full possession of the police, and was refused to the journal which telephoned, but was given to another newspaper.

The 1920s. Golden days. Before the war. When there was a bobby on the beat. And an old children’s phrase could still be heard on the streets of London: “If you know a good copper, kill him before he goes bad.” A time of heated public debate over police practices. Liberty more than a matter of lip-service than in our supine society. Allegations of corruption. Something must be done.

Westminster and Whitehall have a time-honoured tradition of appearing to do something: appoint a royal commission. Reporting in 1929, a paternal finger was wagged:

the public must also bear its share and recognize that in this matter it has its own obligation to the police, first and foremost in ceasing to regard the successful offering of a bribe to a policeman as something of an achievement, and secondly in not exaggerating the extent of an evil which we are convinced is confined to comparatively few members of the force.

Over the next couple of years stories mysteriously appeared in newspapers moaning about new procedures: the honest copper couldn’t get on with his job properly. According to Kingsley Martin, editor of the New Statesman, “These statements have at least the appearance of Scotland Yard inspiration.” And so the game was set.

In 1931 Lord Hewart, the Lord Chief Justice, fined the Surrey Comet and the Daily Mail £500 and £1,000 respectively for contempt of court in publishing information calculated to prejudice the fair trial of two defendants. Summing up, Lord Hewart reminded the defendant of “the many warnings which had been given, especially in recent years.” While the editor of the Comet accepted full responsibility, his barrister noted “that the information published, emanated from the Press Bureau at Scotland Yard and was not sought for.” Turning his attention to the Mail, Hewart observed: “It is baffling to think how and by what means such information is obtained, but the impropriety of printing it … is too obvious to need any explanation.”

In another “time-honoured” tradition, J.R. Clynes, Labour Home Secretary, remarked to the House of Commons on 23 April 1931:

I do not know what grounds, if any, exist for the allegation that the details in the Surrey Comet in the other case emanate from Scotland Yard. On the facts of these cases, therefore, no ground at present appears for any change in practice.

If, however, journalists were believed to have stepped out of line, police cooperation was denied. Historian Clive Emsley explains of this time:

When British Paramount News showed police lashing out at crowds in Hyde Park in October 1932, the commentary eulogized “the most humane force in the world” but the pictures could not hide what appeared to be police officers losing control. The response of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to the showing of these images was to withdraw assistance to the film company for filming the Lord Mayor’s Show, which effectively meant that the procession could not be filmed.

During that same year when austerity and unemployment ravaged the country, the Police Federation was flexing its muscles over a pay cut. A study of the BBC noted a complaint from Whitehall over its news coverage:

On 31 October 1931 the Home Office wrote to Reith [BBC Director-General] querying the inclusion in the previous night’s bulletin of a protest from the Metropolitan Police Federation about proposed cuts in police pay. Reith replied next day that the item came from the usual agency sources but that he had given instructions that “no stuff from the agencies re cuts in pay, protest etc is to be broadcast … only HMG’s official statements in future.”

Little was done in practice to upset the game, a relationship of mutual assistance. Ex-Superintendent Percy Savage recalled:

In my capacity as a senior officer, I always used my discretion and gave the press all the information I could. On not a single occasion have I known the newspapers to go beyond the facts or to give publicity to facts which I asked them not to mention. As for the “good story”,  of course the newspapers want a good story, and the better the story is presented the more it will be read by the people whose co-operation in the elucidation of crime is urgently desired.

This game was well established by the 1960s, despite the efforts of senior officers. Questions were raised in parliament as to why a chief superintendent had ordered all officers in his division to report upstairs any inquiries made by Tommy Bryant, a well-established hack who went on to be managing director of the Fleet Street News Agency. Police officers were only supposed to pass on authorized information. Like any good copper, Bryant was good at cultivating sources. His method was:

to do the rounds of police stations distributing his phone number among the lower ranks. If a tip-off came good, the copper was paid accordingly. If the tip was a bust, the copper would still find a ten shilling note in his post.

Behaviour bordering on the criminal. And don’t forget the crooks, along with the cops and the writers of copy, all have a stake in this game: information, for a price. A rich relationship captured by Anthony Frewin in his thriller London Blues:

It’s a three-sided conspiracy with each side playing an equal part. The small-time criminals want to be portrayed bigger than they are, it increases their standing, makes them feel better. This, naturally, makes the police look better when they collar them. The public can see that they’re not just arresting no-hoep amateurs, they are arresting Major Figures. Now, of course, the bigger the arrest the bigger the story and this is where the journalist plays his part. This is the Sinful Symbiosis operating daily in the cheap papers.  The close relationship doesn’t end when the copper retires.  Then we get the obligatory Murder on My Manor: The Memoirs of Detective Chief Inspector Backhander (“As told to Desmond Raeburn”). Plugs for the book follow in his column over the next few weeks and this saves work as Desmond can then recycle what’s written in the book (which is just recycled from his column anyway). He gets paid for the same stuff three times. Nice work if you can get it.

Despite such mutual dependency, the Fourth Estate’s task to hold power to account made a clash between police and press all but inevitable. From the late 1960s throughout the 1970s, newspapers such as The Times and the Sunday People revealed serious corruption at the Met, especially in specialized sections such as the Flying and Obscene Publications Squads. Whether police malpractice was widening and deepening or simply becoming more visible, due to social changes including the long-term decline of deference, is a matter which has yet to be explored in detail.

Senior officers at the Met, some perhaps on the take, pursued another “time-honoured” tradition: shoot the messenger. The journalists were, eventually, vindicated. Perhaps as a result of the Yard attempting to clean its own stables, more serious steps were taken to stymie unofficial contact between press and police. Tommy Bryant was tried at the Old Bailey for trespass during a murder inquiry. Bryant was also charged, at a later date, with handling police material. On both occasions, he was found not guilty. Allegations were aired that the Met tapped Bryant’s phone.

One of the more outrageous examples of the police hounding a hack occurred during the mid-1970s. Jonathan Ponder of the Evening Standard was cleared of receiving stolen police photos and inducing an officer to commit a breach of discipline. In the sixteen months between Ponder’s arrest and being found not-guilty, he shot himself in a fit of despair and had his spleen removed. Jonathan “Sword of Truth” Aitken, then a Tory MP and ex-journalist, remarked: “if the police code forbidding the passage of information of information still existed it was much more honoured in the breach than in the observance.” Ponder observed of his situation:

I believe I was a scapegoat and that I was used to stop the long accepted practice of individual police officers and journalists sharing a confidential relationship.

Reflecting on these events in 2004, former Daily Express and Mail on Sunday journalist Victor Davis lamtented:

The relationship between crime reporters and rank-and-file policemen never recovered. The year was 1975.

Forty years later, following the Leveson inquiry and police investigations into journalistic jiggery-pokery, relations between the Met and the Media will never be the same again. Balls. All will be forgotten and natural relations resumed. Current Met Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, who in 2012 decreed that officers should record all information disclosed in dealings with journalists, breached his own guidelines a little over a year later: failing to take notes when briefing the press about “Plebgate”. More damningly a column in the Spectator, not noted as a hotbed of pinko thought, accused the Met eight months ago of being “probably more authoritarian and opaque than at any time in modern history.”

It’s business as usual for Rupert Murdoch, reappointing Rebekah Brooks to run News UK. Even though she ordered the deletion of three million emails from the files of News International. While in turn shafting junior journalists (allegedly) to save her skin. Some hacks are pissed off.

Don’t be mistaken in thinking that the “black acts” are practiced only by the tawrdy tabloids. Writing of the Guardian, Michael Gillard and Laurie Flynn indict that questions “remain unanswered about the newspaper’s own dealings with private investigators, including former MI6 officers.”

And don’t forget that one of the phone hackers investigated by the Serious Organized Crime Agency revealed that the press accounts for only 20% of his client base. Blue chip companies, debt collectors, insurance firms, lawyers and wealthy individuals are adept at the “dark arts”. But they’re different. SOCA refuses to name those involved as “disclosing the information could undermine the financial viability of the organizations by tainting them with ‘criminality’.” The tabloids are guilty scapegoats.

Tackling the undercover, if not always underhand, peccadilloes of the police and press has remained elusive across the twentieth and present centuries. Both institutions suffer from the bureaucratic practice, common to most corporate institutions, of elevating the idea and image of the organization above other concerns. Such a mentality induces a culture of cover-up greater than any “crime” committed originally.

The practice of policing and journalism depends on individual discretion. More of a free rein than workers in many other institutions. Governance, to use bullshit-bingo lingo, is difficult. Yet both institutions have faced recent accusations of poor management.

At heart, police officers and journalists rely upon intelligence. Capturing such material defies managerial diktat. The question has for long lingered: how is police and press accountability to be squared with effective discharge of duty?


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