When the London Mayor Boris Johnson commented last year that Scotland Yard needed a "Jane Tennison" figure to address its crisis of leadership, Helen Mirren, who plays the no-nonsense DCI Tennison in the TV crime drama Prime Suspect, told him the force already had one. "They've got Sue Akers," the Oscar-winning actress said, referring to the petite but steely career police officer with whom she spent time while researching her Prime Suspect role.
It was Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, the real deal, who was the television star last week as she appeared before Lord Leveson and gave her analysis of criminal behaviour at The Sun. "The current assessment of the evidence is that it reveals a network of corrupted officials," she said. "There appears to have been a culture at The Sun of illegal payments."
Although she spoke with what the writer Joan Smith described as a "flat, unemphatic delivery", her words were electric. They were also a carefully constructed riposte to a challenge to her authority made by The Sun days earlier in publishing an article which described the investigation led by DAC Akers as a "witch-hunt".
This police officer does not take kindly to such impugning of her integrity. "The cases we are investigating are not ones involving the odd drink, or meal, to police officers or other public officials," she said, rejecting the notion that Sun reporters had been punished for normal journalistic activity, and citing the example of one unnamed individual who received "£150,000 in cash to pay his sources, a number of whom were public officials". These payments were not for information being uncovered in the public interest but for what "can best be described as salacious gossip", she said.
You don't push Sue Akers around. "When she is asked to do things she will make it quite clear that it will be on her terms," says Brian Paddick, a former Metropolitan Police DAC who was her boss when she was Commander of the London borough of Barnet. "If they want someone to make a problem go away, she will tell them to find someone else."
She is a Met Police careerist who joined the force 36 years ago and has worked her way through the ranks without the assistance of a fast-track promotion scheme. In her early career, she found herself working from diverse police stations serving suburban Sutton, wealthy Fulham and more challenging neighbourhoods such as Hornsey and Wembley.
She soon moved into detective work and became a specialist at murder investigation. She joined the Serious and Organised Crime Group, where she had a lengthy attachment to the Flying Squad and three years on an armed surveillance unit, becoming one of the first female officers in the Met to carry a gun. She trained as a hostage negotiator.
Although her plain-speaking did not appeal to all her superiors, Akers was noticed by Ian Blair, who appointed her as his staff officer in 2000 when he was made Deputy Commissioner. A year later, she became only the fifth woman in the force to reach the rank of borough commander.
Those who watched Akers giving evidence last week to the Leveson Inquiry into media standards, and before that to the Home Affairs Select Committee last summer, have been impressed by the contrast between her forthright approach and the shiftiness of some senior Yard colleagues who have previously testified to MPs.
Mike Giglio, who covered the Home Affairs hearing for the American website The Daily Beast, described how, before giving her own evidence, Akers "silently observed" those male officers as they attempted to defend their initial investigation into the phone-hacking scandal at News International. "They networked with power brokers and dined with News International executives," wrote Giglio. "Exactly the kind of cosy, old-boys'-club-style relationships that got the Yard into trouble."
Akers, who is 55 and unmarried, has never been a member of such clubs. When she was appointed to head up the new inquiry into hacking, she was not afraid to voice dissatisfaction with the Met's original work. She was given the job partly because of her experience as Commander of the Yard's Directorate of Professional Standards, where anti-corruption investigations were central to her brief. Back in 2007, she was already warning in an internal report of a minority of Met officers who "undermine all of our jobs" by associating with criminals, taking drugs or misusing warrant cards. Interestingly, she also shone a light on police employees who were accused of domestic violence and sexual assaults while off duty.
When she described to the Leveson hearing her role as the head of the Operation Weeting investigation into phone hacking and the related inquiries of Operation Elveden (bribery) and Operation Tuleta (computer hacking), she stressed: "I am ultimately the person in charge of these investigations." Her definition of her remit was revealing. "My responsibility [is] to ensure that the investigation is conducted in a rigorous, efficient and robust manner," she said. In a second statement to Leveson last month, she acknowledged that journalists needed to protect their sources, but then emphasised: "The payment to public officials for confidential information is illegal, especially in relation to police officers, and cannot therefore be tolerated."
The pursuit of bent coppers is a crucial element in the palpable energy and determination driving the Yard's new probe into the practices of Rupert Murdoch's British newspapers. Akers is described by colleagues as being "dead straight". The world of favours, greasing and backhanders that has unfolded during the hacking affair is anathema to her. She sees herself as beholden to no one. She states that she "will follow the evidence trail to its conclusion".
Evan Harris, a former MP who works with the Hacked Off campaign, praises Akers for her boldness in making clear that Sun journalists have not been punished merely for doing their jobs, but questions whether she should have gone so far as to hint at the paper's closure by saying: "The aim has never been to threaten the existence of The Sun." He also criticises her blunt dismissal ("the contentions ... are completely without foundation") of Brian Paddick's claim that the Operation Elveden bribery inquiry should not be conducted by the Met. It would be wrong to see Akers as a political animal and Paddick himself is unconcerned by his former colleague's comments, praising Akers as "someone of the utmost integrity".
She does have some shadows on her career record. As a Detective Inspector, she was in charge of the Child Protection Team in Islington, London, the location of a long-running children's home abuse scandal. She also inadvertently caused the Met to pay £5,000 in damages for the "hurt feelings" of a police marksman after she introduced him at a social function with the words: "I've always wanted to meet the Met's very own serial killer."
When she realised his reaction, she immediately apologised. As a commander, Akers headed the Yard's fight against gun crime. Before she turned her attentions to phone hacking and bribery, she was described by the veteran crime reporter Duncan Campbell as "the country's leading police officer on gang culture", and has spoken out on the need to provide gang members with alternatives to a criminal lifestyle. "You can carry on with a stick, but you need a carrot at the end of the day," she said.
Those who took illicit payments from News International can expect no such sympathy. DAC Akers's inquiry, she promised last week, "will identify the corrupt public officials and they will be arrested".
The model for DCI Tennison would not have been tempted by such offerings. Five years ago, she was awarded the Queen's Police Medal in Her Majesty's birthday honours. That's a tribute from the real Queen, not Helen Mirren.
A Life In Brief
Born: Sue Akers, 1957.
Career: Joined the Metropolitan Police in 1976 and rose through the ranks, joining the Serious and Organised Crime Squad. Became a Borough Commander in 2001. Became Director of Professional Standards, dealing with police corruption, in 2004. Now Deputy Assistant Commissioner, heading Operations Weeting (phone hacking), Elveden (bribery) and Tuleta (computer hacking).
She says: "The payment to public officials for confidential information is illegal, especially in relation to police officers, and cannot therefore be tolerated."
They say: "Of all the senior people at Scotland Yard that I'm aware of, she would be the one I trust the most... She's very bright. She is very honest and open and she tells it how it is. She is the least political of all the senior officers." Brian Paddick, former Met officer.