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

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.