Six things we’ve learnt from Sue Akers at the Leveson Inquiry

We've found out that News International withdrew co-operation with the police, and the sheer size of the challenge facing the Met, says Hacked Off's Thais Portilho-Shrimpton.

After all the moving evidence from victims, the countless “I can’t recalls” from senior newspapers executives and politicians, and the explosive revelations involving top political figures, the Leveson inquiry found its second wind -- just as it is about to finish taking evidence.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, the woman in charge of all investigations into phone hacking and criminality allegedly perpetrated by journalists, dropped a few bombshells during her third (and seemingly not last) session of oral evidence to Lord Justice Leveson. 

Her evidence was part of the closing submissions to the inquiry, after which Leveson will write his recommendations.

Here are six things we have learnt from DAC Akers during today’s hearing:

1. Alleged criminality spread further than News International

DAC Akers told Leveson today that Operation Elveden, which is looking into payments to police officers and public officials, had evidence that Trinity Mirror, Express and Star Newspapers, as well as News International journalists, have allegedly paid a prison officer some £35,000 for stories between April 2010 and June 2011.

Although there has been evidence of unethical behaviour in more than one title and more than one newspaper group before, there had never been evidence made public of alleged criminality anywhere other than the Sun, the News of The World, and The Times (the NightJack case).

This is an important development – it was believed thus far that most evidence of alleged unlawful behaviour by other newspaper groups was restricted to Operation Motorman files, as breaches of the Data Protection Act. This appears to indicate it went further.

2.  The scale of phone-hacking

Out of the 11,000 pages of private investigator Glenn Mulcaire’s notes, Operation Weeting has managed to identify, according to DAC Akers, a total of 4,775 potential victims. Of these potential victims, 2,615 were notified, with 702 individuals likely to have actually had their voicemails intercepted. Not all victims whose numbers and personal details appear on Mulcaire’s notes have necessarily had their phones hacked. The figure for likely victims was 1,081, but the Met Police was unable to contact all of them.

We’ve learnt last week during a preliminary hearing that, so far, 417 have started civil action against News International over phone-hacking, out of which a total of 100 are expected to go ahead with High Court action against the newspaper publisher.

3. There's a Himalayan quantity of email data to investigate

The scale of Operation Tuleta, examining alleged computer hacking and breaches of privacy, has been revealed to be somewhat overwhelming. There are 101 individual claims relating to the investigations being carried out by the Met into phone hacking, computer hacking, and improper access to medical, banking and other personal records. The police are currently analysing eight to 12 terabytes of data kept in 70 devices.

We have no idea, yet, whether Tom Watson MP was right that email hacking will reveal malpractice on the scale of phone-hacking – the answer is within the mountain of data still to be analysed by the police.

4.  Data could have been downloaded from stolen phones

According to Akers, NI's Managing Standards Committee (an internal investigations team set up by Rupert Murdoch to look into News International titles) handed over data that appears to have been downloaded from stolen mobile phones.

This is a fresh line of inquiry. The data seems to have been obtained some time in late 2010, and the phones seemed to have had their security codes broken so that data could be accessed and downloaded. The mobile phones were obtained in Manchester and South-West London, said Akers.

5.  There have been dozens of arrests through Operations Weeting, Elveden, and Tuleta

To date, 15 current and former journalists have been arrested and interviewed by Operation Weeting, in connection with phone hacking. Thirteen of them have had their files passed on to the Crown Prosecution Service and will learn if they face phone-hacking charges tomorrow.

Forty-one people were arrested under Operation Elveden - 23 current or former journalists, four police officers, nine current or former public officials and five other people who allegedly acted as conduits for payments.

Finally, Operation Elveden arrested six people, under the Computer Misuse Act or on suspicion of handling stolen goods, who are currently on police bail.

6.  News International have refused to co-operate with the police

NI's Managing Standards Committee has had a controversial existence so far. It was set up to help Operations Weeting, Elveden and Tuleta, by providing material obtained via internal investigations, but its members have been accused by former News International journalists of doing the unacceptable: handing over hacks’ sources to the police amidst the evidence of alleged wrongdoing collected from emails, etc.

Akers told the inquiry that Will Lewis and Simon Greenberg, members of the committee, are no longer attended regular meetings with the Met. She said the MSC stopped disclosing information to the police from the middle of May until June 13.

She praised the committee for providing a lot of evidence of “suspected criminality” to the Met, but said that there had been a “change in the nature of cooperation” between the MSC and police, following the arrests of Sun journalists earlier this year.

Thais Portilho-Shrimpton is a campaign co-ordinator for Hacked Off. She tweets: @Selkie

Sue Akers of the Met gave evidence at the Leveson Inquiry. Photo: Getty

Thais Portilho-Shrimpton is Hacked Off's campaign co-ordinator. She tweets: @selkie

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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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