It was the revelation that tabloid-funded private investigators hacked into the voicemails of the missing Milly Dowler that poured petrol on the smouldering coals of the phone-hacking scandal.
Public outrage and a sprawling judge-led inquiry followed, claiming the scalps of the Met commissioner and his deputy in the process. Nor are the ramifications yet fully played out. Three different police operations are still ongoing; the trials of allegedly implicated journalists are only just getting under way, and the vexed question of press regulation rumbles inconclusively on.
But all that is only the beginning. Indeed, it is now clear that the illegal activities of some newspapers occupied just one, small corner of a whole industry of hacking, “blagging” and theft. The product on offer was supposedly private data, from leaked emails to phone records to criminal record checks (domestic and international). The majority of customers were not in the media but were blue-chip law firms, insurance companies and telecommunications groups, and even wealthy individuals.
The discovery of a sophisticated black market in stolen information is concerning enough. What is worse – as The Independent recently revealed – is that the Serious and Organised Crime Agency was aware of it as long ago as 2006, yet did almost nothing about it. In fact, it was not until the Milly Dowler revelations prompted Rupert Murdoch’s snap closure of the News of the World in 2010 that the organisation billed as “Britain’s FBI” saw fit to pursue the suspects identified in its four-year-old report. There has been but a single arrest.
Nor has Soca inspired any greater confidence since. Britain’s largest crime-fighting agency is now at loggerheads with Parliament on the issue, after a senior Met commander’s testimony to the home affairs committee appeared to cast doubt on assertions made by the head of Soca. Trevor Pearce has now also been referred to the police watchdog, after a formal complaint from an alleged victim about the claim that all evidence of corporate-commissioned hacking had been immediately turned over to the police.
In a final perplexing twist, as we report today, the agency is refusing to disclose which companies or individuals were involved in commissioning private investigators to break the law – on the grounds that such accusations would “substantially undermine” their financial viability. After much prompting, details of suspected offenders will be handed over to MPs, but they will remain “classified” and can therefore go no further.
Such reticence might be understandable, were Soca pursuing assiduous investigations itself. But there are no such inquiries. Nor is it credible to suggest either that the companies concerned did not know that they were contracting illegal acts, or that the information received might have been obtained without breaking the law. All that remains, then, is the spectacle of an agency of the criminal justice system apparently placing commercial concerns ahead of its responsibility to uphold the law. For that, there can surely be no rationalisation and no excuse.
We have been here before. It took several years, and much campaigning, before phone hacking by newspapers was properly investigated. Now, although the evidence hints at a vast, shadowy world of illegality and intrusion, there is only obfuscation, foot-dragging – perhaps outright cover-up – from the law enforcement agency that should be tackling it. There are sharp questions to be asked of individuals and corporations who paid for data to be stolen, but there are sharper ones still for Soca.