What next for Metgate?

Why this story won’t go away.

When the New York Times published its report into the phone-tapping scandal last Wednesday, not many British commentators immediately realised its significance.

After a day or so when only a very few on Twitter and the blogosphere promoted the story, it was taken up by Tom Watson MP and then by John Prescott. By the time Prescott had taken advantage of the benefits of being a former deputy prime minister by airing his concerns on the Today programme, the story had legs.

Yesterday, the Home Secretary, Theresa May -- in a fairly unconvincing performance -- refused to announce an inquiry into the affair. This was in response to an urgent parliamentary question by Watson. The chairman of the House of Commons select committee on culture, media and sport has also said that his committee will not reopen the inquiry. Other bodies asked to look at it have so far not yet responded.

It would seem that the story has hit the buffers and lost all momentum; this seems to be a scandal with nowhere else to go.

However, such a view would be misconceived.

To see why, it is important to grasp the single most important element of the New York Times article -- an element that has not been addressed properly or been addressed at all, either by the Home Secretary or by the reported statements of the Metropolitan Police and News International.

The New York Times raised an important allegation about the relationship between the Metropolitan Police and News International. It is this allegation that demands investigation, as it goes to the confidence the public should place in the operational activities of the police and the conduct of the mainstream media.

Once it is realised that this is the nub of the issue, the seeming evasions and stonewalling of the Home Secretary, the Metropolitan Police and News International all become irrelevant and embarrassing to watch.

For example, the Home Secretary repeatedly said there is no "new" or "fresh" evidence. But that contention, which is incorrect in any case, starkly misses the point: the allegation is that the Metropolitan Police already holds a mass of evidence, that it has not properly examined or disclosed this evidence, and that this is because of its relationship with News International.

Here it is important to have a sense of the chronology of what happened. According to the New York Times and the excellent journalism of Nick Davies in the Guardian, a troubling sequence of events can be made out.

In November 2005, the royal household raises concerns about unauthorised access to mobile telephone messages. By January 2006, the Metropolitan Police are investigating these concerns. A mass of evidence is accumulated. In May 2006, Davies reports an internal Met document stating:

A vast number of unique voicemail numbers belonging to high-profile individuals (politicians, celebrities) have been identified as being accessed without authority. These may be the subject of a wider investigation in due course. A number of the targets of this unauthorised access have been informed.

However, in July 2006, a decision is made to "ring-fence" the investigation, even though the evidence points to widespread illegality. There is no good explanation for this. Only then are search warrants obtained, limited to searching only Glenn Mulcaire's home and Clive Goodman's desk at News International. The searches appear to have taken place on 8 August 2006. No search warrants are obtained in respect of any other reporters or editorial staff.

Nonetheless, a substantial amount of evidence is seized from the home of Mulcaire. According to the New York Times, this evidence included 2,978 complete or partial mobile-phone numbers and 91 secret (ie, non-factory-set) Pin codes. The New York Times and Davies report that detectives then came under further pressure to narrow their investigation, an investigation that had been "ring-fenced" even before the search warrants were obtained.

Only Mulcaire and Goodman are arrested. At this point the mass of evidence collected before the warrants were obtained, and the evidence seized from Mulcaire other than that relating to a handful of victims, are not followed up.

Moreover, almost none of those whose voice messages were unlawfully accessed were notified by the Metropolitan Police so that civil actions could be brought. Any civil action would have had to have been brought promptly, as the mobile telephone companies retain the relevant records for only a limited period. This has the effect -- intended or not -- of being to the advantage of the defendant in such civil actions, News International.

The alleged failure to properly consider the mass of evidence collected both before and as a result of the 8 August 2007 search warrants, when combined by the failure to alert potential victims of unlawful access to messages, raises grave concerns.

As the bulk of the evidence at issue is already possessed by the Metropolitan Police, the Home Secretary's protestations about there being no "new" or "fresh" evidence are, of course, hollow. The form of words she uses may even be cynical. But, in a way, the Home Secretary's motivation is irrelevant: her response to the allegation made by the New York Times is a non sequitur. The allegation will persist for the simple reason that it has not been addressed.

Writing for Index on Censorship, Brian Cathcart correctly observes:

As the New York Times points out, the relationship between the Metropolitan Police and News International is now a matter of public concern. Would any other organisation or corporation whose staff were under suspicion have received such gentle treatment at the hands of detectives and prosecutors?

So, where can the story go next?

The Metropolitan Police may reopen the investigation if presented with new evidence. They may even look properly at the evidence they already have.

More interestingly, current and impending criminal cases and civil actions may uncover further information. The excellent Scottish legal blog Love and Garbage points out that the upcoming Tommy Sheridan trial may require Andy Coulson to answer questions under oath about the conduct of the News of the World newsroom. Mark Lewis is bringing a claim for libel against the PCC and the Metropolitan Police, which may lead to further disclosures.

So, even without any engagement by a regulatory body or an official inquiry, it looks as if this story will not go away.

The interest of Labour politicians in exploiting the story to discomfit the current government may ensure that any new information gets wider attention.

In my view, an independent inquiry is required into the relationship between the Metropolitan Police and News International. This inquiry should be open and fair to all those involved, and it can be either a judicial inquiry or by a parliamentary committee. It could be by the Inspector of Constabulary or the PCC, though some may not have confidence in such an investigation.

There are sufficient grounds for such an inquiry. This is not say that there is sufficient evidence -- fresh or otherwise -- for a conviction, a prosecution, an arrest, or even an arrest warrant.

The threshold for an inquiry is quite different. The allegation is serious and consistent with the facts available; the allegation is made by a reputable and serious newspaper; there is witness and documentary evidence to support the allegation; and there is an overwhelming public interest in the allegation being addressed.

So, either the story can be closed down by skilful political and media manoeuvring, or it can be dealt with properly. And the prospect of more information coming to light over the coming months suggests that the first approach may not work this time.

David Allen Green is a lawyer and writer. His Jack of Kent blog was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2010. He will now be blogging regularly for the New Statesman on legal and policy matters.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.