John Stevens: The Guv'nor

While he is widely considered to be charming and a great networker, Stevens also has a fierce temper
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The Independent Online

A lifetime of dealing with conniving, obstructive, abusive and occasionally violent individuals is about to be put to good use by Lord John Stevens. Next Thursday, the former head of the Metropolitan Police is due to publish a report into one of the most sensational and controversial events in modern times: the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The following week the 64-year-old is expected to unveil his final judgment on the explosive sporting issue of whether English soccer clubs are offering hefty bungs to secure players.

The contents of these two hugely anticipated - not to mention costly - reports will test the decorated former police chief's reputation as a fearless investigator who gets results. It will also test out the theory held by several of his senior ex-colleagues that the man affectionately known to them as "JS" is blessed with good fortune, or luck.

But if - as widely tipped - Stevens fails to come up with any hard evidence of illegal football backhanders, and merely confirms previous findings that the Princess died at the hands of her drunken chauffeur, then get ready for some ferocious mauling by the sports media, Mohamed Al Fayed - whose son Dodi perished in the 1997 crash in Paris - and the millionaire's supporters in the press.

But if anyone can pull off this two-report trick and end up satisfying and surprising most people, then the evidence to date would suggest that John Arthur Stevens is the man. In a way his 42-year career has been building to this moment. He started as a tough street cop who on his way to the top of the police career ladder restored the Met's reputation and saw off one of the country's most powerful politicians - David Blunkett, the then home secretary.

Since stepping down as the Met's commissioner in January 2005, he has moved seamlessly from the label of "Britain's top cop" to become "Britain premier private investigator". Added to that title could arguably go "Britain's best-paid former bobby".

Born in Kent, the young Stevens wanted to emulate his father and become a pilot, but poor eyesight wrecked his boyhood dream. Instead he joined the Metropolitan Police at the age of 20 and spent his formative policing years on the beat on Tottenham Court Road in London. He moved over to CID and earned the nickname "Swifty" Stevens for his impressive arrest record. There followed various senior posts on several police forces before he took over from Sir Paul Condon, now Lord Condon, at the Met in 2000.

He proved his staying power and appetite for handling long, complex and dangerous investi-gations with a series of inquiries into collusion between the Army, police and loyalist gunmen in Northern Ireland. The linked inquiries lasted 13 years and ended in 2003 with a hard-hitting report that led to convictions.

His experiences in Northern Ireland proved he would not be intimidated. During the early investigations, a supposedly secure office used by the police in Northern Ireland was burnt down in a suspect arson by rogue members of the Army - yet this failed to scare him off. On another occasion while conducting his collusion inquiry, he famously confronted a group of loyalist paramilitaries who had come to a hotel bar apparently to scare him off, two of whom he later described as "particularly notorious loyalist murderers". Stevens later recalled that he walked over to them and said: "You're not going to frighten us. Bugger off." They turned tail, "leaving their drinks unfinished".

His experiences in Northern Ireland also revealed a tactic he has successfully repeated throughout his career - making sure he has a good deputy to carry out much of the hard graft and deal with the unglamorous, tricky material. In Northern Ireland he had Hugh Orde, who went on to become the head of the police force in Northern Ireland and is the front runner to become the next commissioner of the Met. At Scotland Yard he had Ian Blair, now Sir Ian, who took over the force in 2005. Sir Ian spent much of his time as deputy making apologies for various blunders made by the Met.

Similarly, the current Princess Diana inquiry is being carried out by a 12-strong team of top detectives, which was headed by a hugely experienced detective, assistant commissioner Alan Brown, until he surprised many by taking up a £250,000 post this summer as head of security at Tesco.

Stevens admits that detail and micro-management are not his strong points. He prefers strong inspirational leadership, broad messages and delegation. One former colleague put it another way: "He would bark out orders and expect everyone to make them work. He didn't want a great deal of debate about things - it was very much do it, or face a bollocking."

While Stevens is widely considered to be a genuinely charming man and a great networker, he also has a fierce temper and was notorious for ripping into officers who failed to impress him. "Being bawled out by JS was a pretty unpleasant experience. He could seem as nice as pie one minute and then roast you," recalled one of his senior aides at the Met. Others say that his outburst were "controlled and deliberate". "He knew what was doing," said one insider.

His temper did have its comic moments. On one occasion he pulled a police staff member out of the lift and was about to give him a tongue lashing for ignoring several questions from the commissioner, only to be told that the man was deaf.

It was Stevens' combination of strong leadership, rebuilding the London force, and focusing on catching criminals that helped him to turn around the fortunes of Met. When he arrived as deputy commissioner in 1998, the Macpherson inquiry into the handling of the killing of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, which had branded the police as "institutionally racist", was gnawing away at the reputation of an underfunded, undermanned, sometimes corrupt and generally unloved force. By the time he left in 2005, the Met was nearing full strength at 35,000 (it has since risen to 40,000) and meeting its targets, and enjoyed the highest public confidence of any force in the country.

While Stevens has been credited with reversing the Met's fortunes and regaining public confidence, some of his senior officers believe that is not the whole story. "Throughout his time as commissioner he was bloody lucky," said one senior Met officer. "He never had to deal with the aftermath of a major terrorist attack - unlike Ian Blair who had the July 7 suicide bombers land on his plate within months of taking over - and the Home Office was keen to dish out money. He was good, but he also had good fortune."

Many people also forget that Stevens was commissioner when the Met adopted the controversial "shoot to kill" tactic for dealing for suicide bombers, yet it is his successor Sir Ian who is getting the flak for the fatal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian electrician, who was mistaken for a terrorist.

One area in which things did not run smoothly was Stevens' relationship with David Blunkett, the former home secretary. Stevens was convinced that Blunkett continually ran him down in newspaper articles and briefed against him. Eventually the commissioner snapped, informing "friends close to senior sources in the Government'' that he would come out fighting if Blunkett continued to snipe at him. After that the damaging press reports ceased.

While his work has always been controversial, his family life is much more straightforward. He has been married to Cynthia, a former nurse, for more than 40 years and they have three children, one of whom is a policeman. He is considered by most who meet as a decent and honest man - old-fashioned virtues, perhaps.

His conservative tastes were reflected in his choice of music on a recent appearance on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs - among the tracks were "Jerusalem", "Reach for the Sky", performed by the RAF central band, and "When the Saints Go Marching In" by the band of the Royal Marines. His love of fine wines - which once earned him the nickname of Captain Beaujolais - was also evident in his choice of luxury on his imaginary island: a cellar of champagne.

Since leaving the post of commissioner, Stevens has capitalised on his expertise and good name. He has a lucrative contract to write a weekly column for the News of the World, and is a non-executive director for Travelex, the foreign exchange firm, a forensic science firm, and a financial services company.

He continues to head the Princess Diana inquiry, which has so far cost an estimated £2m; that includes Stevens' personal fee - paid directly by the Metropolitan Police Authority. The former police chief is well aware of the significance and interest in his three-year inquiry, codenamed Operation Paget. But it seems unlikely that, whatever the inquiry uncovers, it will satisfy Mohamed Al Fayed who refuses to believe the crash was an accident, persistently claiming that Princess Diana was pregnant and the couple were assassinated by MI6 or security forces to prevent embarrassing the Royal Family. Others see the inquiry as a waste of time and money, that is partly being carried out to appease the media and the owner of Harrods. A French investigation has already blamed the driver Henri Paul for driving while drunk and at high speed when the car they were travelling in hit a pillar in the Pont de l'Alma tunnel.

Stevens acknowledges the huge interest in the case and seems to revel in being in the thick of it. He said recently: "The press see the deaths of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed in the same light as the deaths of JFK and Marilyn Monroe. Make no mistake about it - it is news around the world. People are watching and waiting to see what conclusions we come up with, so the thoroughness of the investigation is very, very important. We must do it absolutely right.''

For his other inquiry, into football corruption, Stevens is using the private investigation company Quest, of which he is chairman, to carry out the work for an estimated £900,000. The 20-strong team has been concentrating on 39 transfer deals involving eight Premiership clubs to try to establish whether illegal payments were made to agents and other interested parties.

Some commentators have suggested that the Premier League is using the reputation of the former commissioner to help to clear its name. The argument goes that Stevens and his team lack the powers and time to uncover evidence of dirty deals. In response Stevens has vowed: "This inquiry will be thorough, detailed and robust. We will make sure it is successful."

Today it is arguable that no other former or serving police officers is held in such high esteem as Stevens. But if he is to get through to Christmas with his reputation and temper intact, he will need all of his vast experience and charm. Not to mention a bit of luck.

A Life in Brief

BORN 21 October 1942 in Kent; the son of an airline pilot.

EDUCATION Leicester and Southampton universities

FAMILY Married to Cynthia; two boys and a girl - a policeman, an accountant and a barrister.

CAREER 1962: Joined Metropolitan Police, first job as a PC on Tottenham Court Road, rising to detective chief superintendent; 1986: assistant chief constable, Hampshire; 1989: deputy chief constable, Cambridgeshire; 1991: chief constable, Northumbria; 1996: HM inspector of constabulary;1998: deputy commissioner, Metropolitan Police; 2000: knighted and made commissioner; January 2005: retired as commissioner and out of police service; April 2005: created a life peer as Baron Stevens of Kirkwhelpington

HE SAYS "There are things I know, certain secrets, that I could never tell anyone - not even my wife. They will go with me to the grave, and that is where some of them should stay."

THEY SAY "I have faith that Lord Steven's investigation will come to the right conclusion" - Mohammed Al Fayed, on the investigation into the death of his son and Princess Diana