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Travails of the Met

Print edition : Aug 12, 2011 T+T-

The hacking scandal comes at a time when there is disquiet in the U.K. Police over the Conservative government's proposal to cut back on the police budget.

The fabled Scotland Yard is in deep trouble. It is headless following the resignation of Sir Paul Stephenson, who was Commissioner of Police. Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who headed the counterterrorism wing, followed suit within a day. Both the exits were triggered by the hacking scandal associated with media baron Rupert Murdoch's News of the World, which allegedly hacked into the cellphone of Milly Dowler (13), who was abducted and subsequently murdered in 2002 by a night club doorman. The detective hired by the newspaper had not only broken into the girl's telephone but deleted some voice mail messages, therein giving the misleading impression to her parents that she was possibly still alive.

It is suspected that several other phones, including those of the victims of the July 2005 London bomb blasts and some celebrities, were also hacked. There was a liberal use of private detectives by the extremely popular tabloid to collect sensational information through illegal methods. Commissioner Stephenson was in office for just two years. Ironically, he had been appointed to fill the breach caused by the resignation of the controversial Lord Blair, who had a famous row with Mayor Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party which hit the headlines.

For those of us in India, the present turmoil in the Metropolitan Police, or the Met, may not be anything extraordinary, given the politics that goes with many senior police appointments in India. In the United Kingdom, however, it is big news because, until a few years ago, politics and police were poles apart and the average police officer, down to the level of a beat constable, was clinically kept away from the vicissitudes of the political scene. The exit of Ian Blair (as Lord Blair was then known) in 2009 had definite political overtones because his good relationship with the Labour Mayor, David Livingstone, changed with the arrival of the new Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, who continues to be in the position. Although the Commissioner is appointed by the Home Secretary (equivalent of India's Home Minister), the Mayor of London as the Chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority oversees the police and lays down policy guidelines, apart from exercising some budgetary control.

The hacking scandal has assumed grave proportions, with extensive media coverage. It was interesting to watch the live telecast of the proceedings of the two Parliamentary Committees (one for Home Affairs and the other for Media) quizzing police officers and News of the World officials. Apart from scrutiny by these committees, two parallel inquiries are being conducted, which will have a bearing on police conduct. One of them is by Lord Justice Leveson. This decision by the Tory government to opt for a judicial inquiry is widely welcomed because of the judge's high reputation. While making the announcement on this, Prime Minister David Cameron said that the judge would have wide-ranging powers and could summon the police officers and pressmen concerned.

There is also a police investigation by the Met. It will particularly look into why the Met chose to close an earlier investigation following the conviction of two suspects although there was material to proceed further and look into the culpability of many others associated with News of the World. This was a decision that Assistant Commissioner Yates now regrets, because of which he has put in his papers although he had several more years of service and the distinct prospect of ending up as the head of the Met. There is also the report that the first investigating officer, Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, was casual and did not take the investigation to its logical conclusion. He is now assailed for accepting, after his retirement, a consultancy assignment with the Times for writing a regular column. This paper is part of the Murdoch group.

There is simultaneously evidence that some Met officers at a lower level regularly supplied information to News of the World reporters and received cash in return for the favour. This introduces an element of corruption that goes beyond pardonable favouritism to a particular newspaper, for which the Met was not generally known. This will be probed by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

The News of the World controversy raises several issues with regard to the police-press relationship, which are relevant to India as well. Over the past decade or so the media has become extremely aggressive and is forever hungry for information. With the arrival of so many TV channels, the competition is intense. This situation provokes a no-holds-barred scouting for information and scant regard for the means employed to procure it. This is a complex situation that requires an emphasis on ethics at the highest level in each TV channel and newspaper.

The hacking scandal comes at a time when there is disquiet even otherwise in the U.K. Police over the Conservative proposal to cut back the police budget. There is a lot of speculation whether such a cut will lead to an actual reduction in police manpower or will be confined to the pruning of services to the public. This has caused widespread resentment both within the police and in the community. More controversial is the move to have elected Police Commissioners to oversee police functioning. This has been sold by the Conservatives as a means by which the police can be made more accountable to the public. Many former police officers have denounced this as a step that would politicise the police.

Created by an Act of Parliament in 1829 through the pioneering efforts of the then Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel (from whom the constable derived the name bobby'), the Met is popularly called Scotland Yard, after the Great Scotland Yard Street on which its first premises was located. The Met's primary responsibility is to police the London Metropolitan area. (The business district, including Canary Wharf, is under the jurisdiction of a separate force called the City of London Police.) The Met also has national functions, which cover counterterrorism and dignitary protection. Except for occasional incidents, it has effectively controlled street crime in the city with its highly visible beat constables supported by an auxiliary corps of Community Police Officers.

Last year, violent crime showed a decline. While the use of firearms is not of the same level as it is in the United States, what bothers the average London policeman and the citizen is the use of knives, especially by the youth, to commit crime. Several proactive measures by the police, including stop-and-frisk, have kept this under reasonable control. Anyhow, for a city of more than seven million, a police strength of 32,000 is considered inadequate. With the current stress on economy, there is little prospect of this number going up.

This picture seems gloomy in the context of the Olympic Games to be staged here next summer. This is all the more reason why a new Commissioner has to be appointed quickly. Several names are already doing the rounds, including those of Sara Thornton, Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police (from whose jurisdiction Prime Minister Cameron was elected) and Cressida Dick, Assistant Commissioner, Specialist Crime Directorate of the Met. If one of them gets the nod, the Met will have a woman chief for the first time. If recent events are an indication, my feeling is that there will not be many takers for the job, which has become highly politicised. This is sad indeed at a time when many countries are trying to depoliticise policing, and the Met once offered them the model for reform.

There are a few lessons here for the police in major Indian cities. The nature of relations with the media needs a review. Some forces in our country have full-time officers to liaise with them. Many do not have such a functionary although handling the media has become a complex and sensitive task. It is not enough to have an officer totally dedicated to the assignment. It is necessary that he is a well-trained individual.

More important than this is to ensure that the relationship is marked by trust and restraint. A cosy tie between the police and media can sometimes lead to problems of credibility for both. Transparency and good relations should not degenerate into a crude attempt to doctor press reports and cover up one's failings.