Leading article: An air of instability hangs over this force

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The Independent Online

Many people will greet the revelation that a powerful person has made a recording of a chat with another powerful person with equanimity. Some might take the view that, when this happens, the chances of finding out what is going on behind the curtain of secrecy that still hangs around the work of the state is increased. Such recordings usually find their way into the public arena, after all.

In this respect, the news that the head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, secretly recorded one of his phone conversations with the Attorney General might be regarded as no cause for scandal. There is also something rather artificial about the reported outrage of Lord Goldsmith, of all people, over being taped. The conversations of ministers are recorded by civil servants as a matter of routine. And if Sir Ian had jotted down this interchange in shorthand, there would have been little grounds for complaint.

Yet it was foolish of Sir Ian to have made this recording, and the affair betrays a worrying lack of judgement - not for the first time. Surely the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police can understand the need for confidentiality in his private conversations with senior figures in politics, the law and the intelligence services. Despite the apology issued on Sir Ian's behalf, anyone who has had dealings with him will wonder whether they were secretly being recorded; inevitably, they will wonder why Sir Ian felt the need to make such recordings. He has betrayed people's trust, undermined his office and, perhaps worst of all, given the impression that he does not even understand the significance of his mistakes.

This affair adds to the air of instability around Sir Ian's position. The very fact that the Metropolitan Police chief feels it necessary to use Nixonian recording techniques betrays a worrying paranoia. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Sir Ian also taped conversations with officials from the Independent Police Complaints Commission who are investigating his conduct in the wake of the Jean Charles de Menezes shooting. The outcome of this case could, in theory, spell the end of his career. In the absence of a plausible explanation of why he made these recordings, many will assume they are some sort of insurance policy.

The revelations also raise questions about the extent to which the most senior policeman in Britain is in control of his organisation. This becomes less clear by the day. The reason we know about these recordings is because their existence was leaked to the press - an indication that there is an internal battle going on within Scotland Yard.

Sir Ian has had an astonishingly poor first year in office. His unsuccessful attempt to lobby MPs to support the Government's proposals to detain terror suspects for up to 90 days came perilously close to politicising the police force. And his emphasis on good public relations at the expense of good policing has repeatedly landed him in hot water. This is the second time Sir Ian has had to make a public apology. Just six weeks ago, he was forced to withdraw some insensitive comments over the Soham murders. And all the while the outcome of the IPCC inquiry hangs over him.

The Metropolitan Police needs to be on the very top of its game. Last year's bombing of the London transport system demonstrated the scale of the terrorism threat facing the capital. It is ironic that Sir Ian's phone call with Lord Goldsmith was about whether phone-tap evidence ought to be admissible in terrorism trials. Once again, Sir Ian's clumsiness has pushed a serious issue to the margins. If this trend continues, the Metropolitan Police will soon require a new leader.