If one quality sets British policing above its counterparts in other countries, if a single characteristic distinguishes Scotland Yard from the NYPD or the Prefecture de Police, it is its culture of friendliness. "Hello hello hello": that was the traditional greeting of the avuncular bobby on the beat, and the majority of his latter-day equivalents still patrol London's streets armed with nothing more than a truncheon and an air of affability. Now, as investigators lay bare the circumstances behind the phone-hacking scandal that has plunged the British establishment into crisis, shuttered a 168-year-old Sunday tabloid and rattled Rupert Murdoch's global media empire, Scotland Yard's culture of friendliness is coming under the spotlight as never before. Britons are struck anew by quite how friendly the police can be, at least in dealings with employees and former employees of News International, the London-based subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corporation. The revelations threaten to tarnish the world's premier policing brand and could yet bring down Britain's Prime Minister, or at least give him a bit of a Wendi Deng-ing.
On the morning of July 19, a leading chain of bookmakers slashed the odds on David Cameron's ouster to 3/1, down from 20/1 before the scandal broke. Crowds were already queuing outside an annex to the Houses of Parliament for the opportunity of watching a committee of MPs grill Murdoch about the same scandal, and further along the corridor a second committee of parliamentarians was setting about its lower profile inquiries on the subject too. Members of the Home Affairs Select Committee had called Sir Paul Stephenson, until his sudden resignation two days before Scotland Yard's Commissioner. The committee wanted Stephenson to explain why the Yard's original investigation into the News of the World's interception of voicemails destined for Princes William and Harry had failed to chase up thousands more potential victims of hacking. Or to discover that the newspaper may have been paying some of his officers for tip-offs. Or why subsequent calls to reopen the investigation were stonewalled until January of this year. Stephenson left many questions unanswered. But the picture that he drew augmented by testimony from Scotland Yard's Director of Public Affairs Dick Fedorcio and former Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who nixed a move to reopen the hacking files in 2009 and resigned on July 18 was of a strange octopus-like creature gripping British public life, its tentacles extending from News International into the upper reaches of police ranks and the highest offices of state.
This is how Murdoch's influence has permeated British public life and especially its top "cop shop," to use a newly resonant Britishism. Founded in 1829, Scotland Yard has long set the international gold standard in policing, often summoned by other forces in the U.K. and abroad to assist in sensitive or demanding investigations. It is far from infallible, as the July 2005 shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, mistaken for a suicide bomber, tragically proved, but under Stephenson's direction it had regained trust. That has been shaken by a raft of revelations. As the committee met, the London Evening Standard reported that Neville Thurlbeck, the chief reporter of the News of the World arrested on April 5 by police investigating allegations of phone hacking, had at times acted as a police informant. For two decades, Alex Marunchak, who rose to be an executive editor of the tabloid, moonlighted as a Ukrainian translator for the Yard, complaining to the Daily Telegraph he had been "called out at all hours of the night to deal with the real dregs of society." Neil Wallis, the News of the World's former deputy editor, was contracted to provide media advice to the Yard and its Commissioner. This contract was granted only after Yates, a personal friend of Wallis, had undertaken what Fedorcio termed "due diligence" to ensure "there was nothing that could embarrass us in this appointment." Yates, quizzed by MPs after Fedorcio, demurred. "I didn't do due diligence in the due diligence sense."
Stephenson resigned after a health spa that accommodated him for free after medical treatment turned out to use Wallis's PR services too, while Yates stood down over allegations he secured a job at the Yard for Wallis's daughter. Both men deny any impropriety. But there is no gainsaying the closeness between the Yard and News International. Ten out of Scotland Yard's current team of 45 press officers previously worked for News of the World. And it has been hello hello hello to serving News International journalists, too, with a full 30% of Stephenson's meetings with media between 2005 and 2010 involving journalists from the News of the World, its sister tabloid the Sun, or the broadsheets the Sunday Times and the Times. "If I'm going to talk to media," Stephenson said, "and [News International] have 42% of readers in this country, who am I going to talk to?"
That reflexive bending of the knee to the power of News International also underpinned Cameron's 2007 choice of a communications supremo: Andy Coulson, the former editor of the News of the World who had resigned earlier the same year amid the royal-hacking allegations. Wallis briefly and Downing Street insists, in an unpaid capacity helped Coulson sell Cameron's policies. Coulson left Cameron's employ earlier this year and was arrested on July 8 by officers from the two separate investigations into allegations of phone hacking and police payments. Wallis was arrested on suspicion of voicemail interception six days later.
Addressing an emergency session of the House of Commons on July 20, Cameron announced that a police chief from outside Scotland Yard would take over both investigations. This looks bad for the Yard. It could look worse for the Prime Minister. He conceded that if Coulson is proven guilty, "that would be a moment for a profound apology. And in that event, I can tell you I will not fall short." Does this mean he'd resign? He's not saying, but the odds on his departure shortened again, to 2/1. Time and the parliamentary summer recess to cool the frenzy are probably on his side, but this scandal has taken all sorts of surprising turns. In its wake there will be fewer hello hello hellos between the police and the media. The goodbye goodbye goodbyes may continue for some time to come.