Latest Inquiry into British Hacking Scandal Scrutinizes Ties Between Police and Press

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Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Police patrol Oxford Street on December 27, 2011 in London, England.

Throughout much of 2011, Britain was gripped with revelations of the nefarious phone hacking scandal that engulfed one of its oldest newspapers, News of the World. The scandal saw the shuttering of the 168-year-old paper, the uniting of celebrities, politicians and the public in denouncing tabloid invasiveness and multiple inquiries into just how far-reaching these unscrupulous practices were. Kicking off a new year, the fallout continues as investigators continue to delve into the wider practices of the British press.

Among the many inquiries ordered in the wake of the scandal, came Wednesday’s report on the relationship between the Metropolitan Police Service and the media. Former Parliamentary standards chief Elizabeth Filkin conducted the inquiry, which denounced the often too-cozy relationship between journalists and police. The final report has been issued as a guide to Scotland Yard replete with recommendations that, at first glance, vaguely resemble an antiquated PSA aimed at high-school girls, rather than police officers. Particularly stressed in the report are Filkin’s recommendations that officers should avoid indulging in alcohol and late-night pub gatherings with reporters and that the police should be wary of particularly friendly or “flirty” relationships with the press. Police are instructed to keep a log of each interaction with the press, which could be audited in the future. While some of the guidelines might seem a bit severe, they go a long way in highlighting how uncomfortably close certain members of the Met had become with the media.

“This inquiry has identified a range of problems in the relationship between the Metropolitan Police Service and the media which require urgent action,” Filkin said in her report. She also noted that the close affiliation of the two groups had diminished each party’s ability to “scrutinize the activities of the other.” After unsettling details emerged during last year’s investigations of NotW, it’s hardly surprising that Scotland Yard, not to mention the public, deemed the inquiry necessary.

When initial reports broke last spring that private investigators, acting on behalf of NotW, had hacked into the voicemail of missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler and allegedly deleted messages – thereby inadvertently giving the murdered girl’s family hope that she was alive – the public was understandably horrified. When it emerged that members of the Met had been aware of such practices for years without reporting their extent, the public was enraged. Allegations flew that several senior officers were closely affiliated with NotW’s parent company, Rupert Murdoch’s News International, and had possibly even traded information for money. The scandal led to the resignation of then-police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson and then-assistant commissioner John Yates. More worryingly for the force, the scandal also led to the perception of diminished trust in the Met.

The recommendations in Filkin’s report have been well received by Stephenson’s replacement, police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe. He told reporters at a press conference that though the Met often needed the media’s cooperation, the era of “secret conversations and improper contact” between officers and the media was over. Of course, Hogan-Howe was likely to take a hard-line position on reforming the force given the public scrutiny brought on by the inquiry. Last month saw a report from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary — a police watchdog – on the ties between wider UK police forces and the press. Later this month, Lord Justice Levenson’s ongoing inquiry into press practices will also focus on the media’s relationship with the police.

Meanwhile, as the Met pledges to uphold transparency in their dealings with the press, an eight-member police team is investigating what could very well lead to the scandal of 2012 — email hacking. On Jan. 2, U.K. paper The Independent reported that Scotland Yard’s investigation had uncovered evidence that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s emails were illegally accessed during his time as Britain’s chancellor under Tony Blair. Troublingly, the paper also reports that this evidence is just the tip of the iceberg. Allegedly, private investigators intercepting emails at the request of various British newspapers has been a practice as widespread as phone hacking. The Met has estimated that some 5,800 people had their phones tampered with and The Independent reports that the latest evidence suggests “that the email investigation could involve as many victims as those involved in the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.”

While NotW was the only redtop officially held accountable, many other British tabloids have since been under suspicion. Could revelations of email hacking reprise the scandal’s furor that saw more than a dozen journalists and editors arrested? It might be too soon to say for sure, but the prospect likely has many U.K. tabloid employees feeling anything but cozy.