What Did the Police Uncover and What Did they Make of it?
Since I first drafted this post, the news about developments has kept coming so fast, there has not been time to hit the “Publish” button!
What I wanted to do was to look at the evidence given by DCS Williams of the Metropolitan Police in the Tommy Sheridan trial to see what it told us at that stage (December 2010) about what the police had actually uncovered as part of Operation Caryatid.
In light of the resignations yesterday and today of Commissioner Stephenson and Assistant Commissioner Yates, in part over concerns about the lack of rigour in the inquiries, I find the evidence of DCS Williams rather interesting. It helps, I think, to make clear the dreadfully negative attitude the police had to this whole inquiry. They simply wished it would go away.
As always my notes of the evidence are taken from the excellent Sheridan Trial Blog, put together by James Doleman.
Of course when DCS Williams gave evidence, Andy Coulson was still Director of Communications for the Prime Minister, Stephenson and Yates were still in place, Brooks and Hinton still worked for Rupert Murdoch, and the News of the World was the top-selling newspaper in Britain. How things change!
DCS Williams gave evidence about the search of Glenn Mulcaire’s property and the information discovered about his methodology.
He was asked if, during the search, it was true that “3000 telephone numbers, 30 audio tapes and 100 PIN codes” had been unearthed.
DCS Williams said this was “not accurate”. Mr Sheridan referred to a parliamentary inquiry having been told there were “2978” numbers recovered, and he had “rounded that up to 3000”. DCS Williams replied, “If that is what the MPs were given it will be correct” and added that he believed the figure for PIN codes was 91.
It is, as an aside, interesting that the first reply was that the figures were not accurate, when, in fact, the correct details were 2,978 not 3,000 phone numbers, and 91 rather than 100 PIN codes.
Whilst I have posted before that Mr Sheridan’s lack of a full legal training and experience has meant that prosecutions for perjury of certain of the witnesses in his case is less likely as his questions were often not sufficiently precise, he deserves credit here for getting DCS Williams to agree that the figures given, whilst not precise, were pretty close. I do not intend to suggest that it was DCS Williams’ intention to downgrade the effect of the numbers put to him – but that, if he had not been pursued further, would probably have been the effect.
DCS Williams then told the court how Mr Mulcaire carried out the hacking. He would obtain the “unique number” of the mailbox belonging to their target and “dial it direct”. Depending on the “level of security” it would sometimes be necessary to obtain a PIN number.
In all the ongoing discussions regarding the “hacking” there has been little clear reporting of precisely what was done by Mr Mulcaire and the other investigators used by the press.
Some writers have even said that it does not amount to hacking where simply someone accesses a phone’s messages because the default PIN code has not been changed.
This evidence is an indication, to my eyes, that there was more to it than a simple reliance on phone users not changing their PIN codes.
Anyone who saw Chris Bryant MP being “interviewed” by Kay Burley some months ago on Sky News would be well aware that there was more to the process than simply relying on default PIN codes.
We next come to the nub of the issue, and that which, effectively, has lead to the end of the police careers of Messrs Stephenson and Yates.
Mr Sheridan asked how many people had been affected. DCS Williams stated that they had only evidence that reached the level of proof for “one victim” whom he identified as James Pinkerton, a “private secretary in the Royal Household.”
DCS Williams could not tell the court how many phones had been hacked or how many voicemails accessed.
We now know that there are around 4,000 possible victims of Glenn Mulcaire’s phone hacking spree (at least). This is based upon the information taken from Mr Mulcaire’s home, and which, by the time of the Sheridan trial, had been in the possession of the Metropolitan Police for over four years. Quite how DCS Williams was able to say that there was one victim, Mr Pinkerton, seems remarkable.
However, standing what Mr Yates said to the Home Affairs Select Committee last week, namely that the police were bound by a very strict definition of the offence given to them by the Crown Prosecution Service, it is easier to see how the effects were so minimised, even if the interpretation seems ridiculously narrow.
The interpretation given to Mr Yates was that an offence could only be proved to have been committed where it could be proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that a message on a mobile phone had been accessed by a third party before the intended recipient had heard it. On the guidance Mr Yates stated he had been given, it was necessary to prove that messages were hacked before the recipient got to them. Understandably that would be something very difficult to prove.
Leaving aside for now my view that that is a nonsensical definition of the crime, it at least helps us to understand why the Met Police seemed to underplay the numbers so much.
Mr Sheridan then asked the witness if the police had discovered the names that related to the phone numbers they had found. DCS Williams turned to the judge, Lord Bracadale, and said “M’lord. I have given answers, I don’t see how this is relevant.” Lord Bracadale directed the witness to answer.
Why would the officer be reluctant to answer that question? Was it a fear that a long police operation might seem to have been ridiculous if there had been so many numbers and only a few names found? Perhaps one of the House of Commons Select Committees looking into this matter, or Lord Justice Levenson’s inquiry might want to ask DCS Williams.
DCS Williams told the court that “the mere presence of a name and address does not mean anything unlawful has gone on.” The witness went on to state that “you would expect” that people who worked in the media would have possession of this sort of information and he “could not assume the purpose it’s held for is interception.” DCS Williams added that this had also been the view of the Crown Prosecution Service when they had reviewed the case last year (2009).
So there we have it in a nutshell. The implication I take from DCS Williams’ evidence is that the police were looking for reasons not to have to enquire into matters. The assumption seemed to be that unless the evidence of “hacking” struck them over the head, they should not really go looking for it.
Many in legal practice have had clients come in after approaching the police about what they, the victims, have perceived to be criminal activity, only to be met with the response at the Police Station desk of “That will be a civil matter, Sir.”
That was generally seen as a euphemism for “I am too busy or cannot be bothered dealing with that matter. Take it to a solicitor and don’t bother me, Sir.”
Here, on an industrial scale, to coin a phrase, the police were attempting to say “It’s a civil matter, Sir” as exemplified by Assistant Commissioner Yates’ review following further allegations by the Guardian where he reconsidered the whole matter of the 11,000 pages of evidence in an eight hour period before coming to the view that there was nothing new to look at or to justify the taking of further action at that time.
This is exemplified by the way that, originally, many of the celebrities and politicians complaining about hacking were told they had not been hacked, yet are now being made aware that they might have been.
Whether this “blind eye” approach was anything more sinister than simple incompetence will, hopefully, be addressed by one of the myriad of inquiries which seem to sprouting daily in connection with these matters.
What seems clear is that the police wanted little or nothing to do with this investigation – it was downplayed as much as possible – the bare minimum action was taken, and the whole sorry mess can be summed up by the picture of Mr Mulcaire’s 11,000 pages of notes lying in plastic bags in a Scotland Yard store room for four years, uncatalogued and ignored.