Wed, Jul 20, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Tabloid taint rubs off on Scotland Yard

London police and News International became so intertwined that they wound up sharing the goal of containing the probe on widespread phone-hacking

By Don Van Natta, Jr  /  NY Times News Service, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

For nearly four years they lay piled in a Scotland Yard evidence room, six overstuffed plastic bags gathering dust and little else.

Inside was a treasure-trove of evidence: 11,000 pages of handwritten notes listing nearly 4,000 celebrities, politicians, sports stars, police officials and crime victims whose phones may have been hacked by News of the World, a now defunct British tabloid.

Yet from August 2006, when the items were seized, until last autumn, no one at London’s Metropolitan Police Service, commonly referred to as Scotland Yard, bothered to sort through all the material and catalog every page, former and current senior police officials said.

During that same time, senior Scotland Yard officials assured parliament, judges, lawyers, potential hacking victims, the news media and the public that there was no evidence of widespread hacking by the tabloid. They steadfastly maintained that their original inquiry, which led to the conviction of one reporter and one private investigator, had put an end to what they called an isolated incident.

After the past week, that assertion has been reduced to tatters, torn apart by a spectacular avalanche of contradictory evidence, admissions by News International executives that hacking was more widespread and a reversal by police officials who now admit to mishandling the case.

Assistant Commissioner John Yates of the Metropolitan Police Service publicly acknowledged that he had not actually gone through the evidence. [Editor’s note: Yates resigned on Monday, shortly after the Metropolitan Police Authority said it would suspend him pending an ethics inquiry.]

“I’m not going to go down and look at bin bags,” Yates said, using the British term for trash bags.

At best, former Scotland Yard senior officers acknowledged in interviews, the police have been lazy, incompetent and too cozy with the people they should have regarded as suspects. At worst, they said, some officers might be guilty of crimes themselves.

“It’s embarrassing and it’s tragic,” a retired Scotland Yard veteran said. “This has badly damaged the reputation of a really good investigative organization, and there is a major crisis now in the leadership of the Yard.”

The testimony and evidence that emerged last week, as well as interviews with current and former officials, indicate that the police agency and News International, the British subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and the publisher of News of the World, became so intertwined that they wound up sharing the goal of containing the investigation.

Members of parliament said in interviews that they were troubled by a “revolving door” between the police and News International, which included a former top editor at News of the World at the time of the hacking who went on to work as a media strategist for Scotland Yard.

On Friday, the New York Times learned that former editor Neil Wallis was reporting back to News International while he was working for the police on the hacking case.

Executives and others at the company also enjoyed close social ties to Scotland Yard’s top officials. Since the hacking scandal began in 2006, Yates and others regularly dined with editors from News International papers, records show. Sir Paul Stephenson, the police commissioner, met for meals 18 times with company executives and editors during the investigation, including on eight occasions with Wallis while he was still working at News of the World. [Editor’s note: Stephenson resigned on Sunday over his ties to Wallis.]

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