A desire not to embarrass the Royal Family has emerged as a key reason why the Metropolitan Police failed thoroughly to investigate phone hacking at the News of the World in 2006.
It is widely assumed that the Met’s decision to prosecute just two people – royal reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire – was down to extensive links between the paper’s owner, News International, and Scotland Yard. The pair were convicted in early 2007, and found guilty of listening to the voicemails of royal household staff and five others.
But a new book, The News Machine, written with Mulcaire’s co-operation, makes the claim that the decision by him and Goodman to plead guilty enabled the police to draw a line under the investigation, because it gave them the conviction they wanted without having to ask the royal princes to appear in court.
Had there been wider charges, it is likely that more evidence – including first-person testimony – could have been required from the royals. It did not become public knowledge until last year that the phones of the royal princes and Kate Middleton had been hacked, in addition to those of members of the royal household staff.
A senior police source interviewed for the book said that after the affair involving Diana’s butler Paul Burrell – whose trial for stealing her belongings collapsed in 2002 – it was clear that members of the Royal Family were extremely reluctant to go into the witness box. This was despite the fact that the princes had been the first to raise the alarm about interception of their voicemails.
Two members of the initial investigation subsequently told the Leveson Inquiry that they were aware of more widespread evidence of phone hacking in 2006 and, if the resources had been available, would have wanted to go after more of those responsible. Another factor that led to the investigation being dropped was that the same department of Scotland Yard was also dealing with a mounting terrorist threat to the UK at the time.
Detective Inspector Mark Maberly told Lord Justice Leveson: “There were still lines of inquiry that I would have been keen to follow. In particular, I’d identified three names who, if I had sufficient evidence, I would have liked to have spoken to. I accepted the decision that, you know, the resources were not there to widen the inquiry, and I myself was deployed on other anti-terrorist branch inquiries at the time.” Detective Chief Superintendent Keith Surtees told the inquiry that it was “highly unlikely in our view to be restricted only to Goodman and was probably quite widespread”.
A senior Met figure denies there was any explicit deal between the Palace and the police, but the fact that Goodman and Mulcaire were going to plead guilty was a considerable relief to more than just the editors at the News of the World. He says: “There was no agreement, it just became a self-fulfilling prophecy which suited all sides at the time – a sort of passive gentleman’s agreement. The police were rushed off their feet with the airlines plot and not wanting to upset the royals, and the NOTW more than happy to air only a fraction of their dirty linen.”
The importance the police put on reaching a conclusion without embarrassing the royal princes is backed up by Glenn Mulcaire. “If we hadn’t pleaded guilty, the princes would have had to go into the box,” he says. “Minimising royal embarrassment was part of the deal. Everyone apart from me was a winner, though they could have done us on national security grounds, which would have meant a much longer stretch.”
So, remarkably, the royal princes and the bosses at the NOTW had identical interests, and the police - with much else on their plate - were more than happy to go along.
The failure to get to the bottom of the matter in 2006-7, and the decision not to reopen it until 2011, was to cause deferred and prolonged and embarrassment for the police. Dozens of victims of phone hacking demanded to know what had happened, and the extent of the evidence – collected in bin bags – in the police’s possession dribbled out over time.
In the court case that saw Goodman and Mulcaire convicted, the judge referred to Mulcaire as having been tasked by others at the paper. It also emerged that there was a “For Neville” email, a message in which a junior NOTW reporter copied a transcript of more than 30 messages hacked from the phones of the Professional Footballers’ Association chief executive, Gordon Taylor, and his legal adviser Jo Armstrong.
But perhaps the most notable decision by the police, which to many suggested the Yard had closed the matter down too hastily, was the evidence that Mulcaire had breached the witness protection programme by looking into child killers Robert Thompson and Mary Bell.
The police had evidence that, eight years later, was considered sufficiently serious to be raised with the Attorney General, that there had been an apparent breach of High Court injunctions that protected their new identities. Yet no action was taken, and it seems two senior officer -, in 2006 the then Commissioner Ian Blair, and John Yates in 2009 – were not made aware of the apparent breach.
Once again, the police’s decision not to pursue the matter at the time is remarkable, although those familiar with witness protection have suggested that, if the police had taken action, it might well have been necessary to resettle Thompson and Bell yet again, which would have incurred further expense, and that there was no certainty of securing a conviction.
In other words, it is argued, the wider public interest was not best served by pursuing the matter.
Mulcaire insists that he did nothing to make them any easier to trace by possible vigilantes, and that he never let a journalist have their home addresses, so their safety was not endangered.
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