I sat in on a think-tank discussion recently, to learn about the Metropolitan Police. Its size (52,000), cost (police expenditure reached £14.5 billion in 2010), brief (it operates both on a national and on a local, London, level) and pecking order (at the helm is an uneasy triumvirate, the Mayor of London, the Home Secretary, and the Met Commissioner) make this a unique institution. What came out loud and clear from the participants (who included Bob Quick QPM, a former Assistant Commissioner, and Jacqui Smith, the former Home Secretary) was the insular, almost Masonic nature of the beast, and how thin-skinned it is about criticisms.
The Met must have been writhing in agony, then, over the last few weeks. First, its cavalier attitude to the phone hacking scandal has been exposed by journalists who showed a far greater interest in getting to the bottom of the News of the World's dirty tricks than Met chiefs did. Further humiliation awaited the proud cops: because of this negligence, Sir Paul Stephenson resigned last July as Commissioner; a day later John Yates, the Assistant Commissioner, followed suit. As if this were not enough, a campaign got under way to place an American supercop, William Bratton, at the helm of this very British institution.
Worst of all, though, was the suspicion that someone within this tight-knit force was leaking to the press about Operation Weeting, the Yard's investigation into illegal voicemail interception at the NOTW. Relations between the police and the press have often struck some observers as a tad too cosy. Simon Jenkins, ex-editor of The Times (and head of the National Trust) remembers that when he was working as a young journalist at his first newspaper, on Friday nights journalists on their way to the pub would pass by a desk where brown envelopes were neatly lined up. Printed very clearly on each one was the name of a different police officer: inside was a tenner (or more), as thanks for the tip offs. This kind of collusion was completely routine. But money does not need to change hands for a very close relationship between cops and hacks to raise concern.
This proved true for the Met last month. A story about the arrest of James Desborough, the NOTW's US editor, by Guardian journalist Amelia Hill appeared on The Guardian's website at 10.29am on 18 August – one minute before Mr Desborough's 10.30am appointment to face questioning at the police station. Scotland Yard did not issue a press release about the arrest until 11.01am.
Red faces for the boys in blue, then. Their reaction was to question the trouble-making Ms Hill, and to increase the pressure for her to name her source on this story by threatening to charge her under the Officials Secret Act. This piece of legislation is supposed to protect state security: how, one wonders, was the nation's security at risk because a cop blabbed about a tabloid hacking into voicemails? As Mark Simmons, the Deputy Assistant Commissioner, admitted on Today this morning, the Met couldn't have got it more wrong. If they had continued to pursue Amelia Hill, with a view to forcing her to reveal her sources, they would have killed off press freedom in this country. As it is, they've shot themselves in the foot – and possibly fatally wounded the Act, too.
Would this be such a bad thing? This piece of legislation was designed to protect national security. It was necessary to introduce it during the First World War, when espionage was rampant and potentially lethal for the war effort. Soon, though, it was used to promote a Kremlin-like culture of secrecy. Edward Heath, as Ben Macintyre reminds us (from behind the paywall, so let me quote him here), admitted that "Britain was the most secretive state in western Europe." And, as Macintyre points out, this love affair with concealment continues to this day, so that "Britons learnt not to enquire into details of what went on in Whitehall, the Foreign Office, or the police." This secrecy allowed everyone to live a lie, where no one was to admit the existence of the secret services (and to reveal the colour of the carpets in MI6 was a crime).
The Act has to be reviewed so that it protects what needs protection, but does not offer a cover to those who blunder, or bully. National security is always paramount – but Scotland Yard's self-image is not.http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/cristinaodone/100106162/the-official-secrets-act-is-a-licence-for-cover-ups/