This is a guest post from Neil Wallis, a former editor of the News of the World. He is a Fleet Street veteran for 35 years, former editor of The People, former deputy editor of both The Sun and the News of the World, and gave evidence twice at the Leveson Inquiry. He was arrested at 6am on 14 July 2011 as part of the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Weeting but cleared in February 2013.
On 25th May, 2012, a Metropolitan Police sergeant stared me coldly in the eye and told me he planned to charge me with serious corporate crime.
It was 10 months since I had been arrested in a 5.30am dawn raid at my West London crime den by officers from the Met’s Operation Weeting squad investigating allegations of conspiracy to hack telephones by the News of the World.
That day – only my second interview since I’d been marched off to a prison cell back on 14th July 2011 – he threatened these alleged new offenses by explaining that, as a former Deputy Editor of the newspaper I was a very senior company executive with corporate responsibilities.
So in that corporate role I either knew crime was being committed or authorised by our staff and sanctioned it…
Or, as a very senior corporate official, SHOULD have known and that even if I pleaded ignorance I was still guilty of criminal negligence.
Sitting terrified in a cramped interview room at Hammersmith Police Station that day, listened to this “damned if you did, damned if you didn’t” threat, I had no idea that at that same day the nation’s Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) had had locked away in a safe for the previous six years a secret in-depth report minutely detailing how at least 102 blue-chip companies were similarly accused of bankrolling phone-hacking, blagging and far worse by corrupt Private Investigators to steal private information from individual citizens.
I had no idea that, despite the politicians-driven supremely high profile police investigations into the alleged actions of the News of the World and some of its staff, there was a total absence of such activity going on into identical and far worse alleged lawbreaking paid for by those companies.
In particular, I also had no idea that not a single executive from any of those 102 blue-chip companies had been dragged from bed at dawn by six police officers in front of their families; their homes minutely searched for hours; all their computers, mobile phones, and contact books seized; personal possessions carried off in plastic bags; and finally marched out in front of the neighbours and sat in the back of a police car and driven away to that smelly cell.
I was. Many other journalists, from the most senior to the most junior, have been too. And far worse.
So why not those City executives? Why not the crisply-shirted bosses from City finance firms, the rich celebrities, the expensively-dressed solicitors from world-famous law firms?
What is the difference between me and other journalists arrested on conspiracy charges but never accused of actual phone-hacking, and these “respectable” businessmen from blue-chip firms?
Ever since the Independent’s excellent young reporter Tom Harper revealed SOCA’s secret list of shame several months ago, I and many others have struggled for an answer.
In particular, why have SOCA and the Metropolitan police not bothered to investigate, and have even refused to reveal the names of, these companies, citing “human rights” and in particular “the companies and their executives may not have known what was being done in their name”.
Yet back on the 25th May 2012 the Met’s detectives insisted to me that that was no defence to the identical crime they were accusing me of?
Section 79 of RIPA (Criminal Liability of Directors) says someone is guilty of corporate crime if it has been “committed with the consent or connivance of, or to be attributable to any neglect on the part of… a director, manager, secretary, or similar officer of the body corporate.”
So what was, is, the difference between a tabloid newspaper executive and the executive of a posh, blue-chip, City law firm or finance corporation?
Why was I in that cell being questioned, and the executives of 102 non-media companies weren’t?
Please don’t misunderstand – I accept the police have a job to do and if they have credible allegations of illegal activity then of course they can and should where appropriate investigate.
However, even before the blue-chip hacking scandal emerged earlier this year, I had deep misgivings and indeed anger over the incredibly heavy-handed and disproportionate way the Met were investigating alleged white-collar crime by journalists.
15 black-clad officers raided one suspect’s rural home in a 6am winter swoop – a guest who woke and saw them running across the lawn was terrified it was an attack by robbers.
A pensioner cancer victim was made to get off her sickbed so detectives could search under the mattress.
Boxes of children’s holiday snaps going back a decade were seized during one police raid and never returned.
Particularly appallingly, two 15-year-old girls made to stand outside their bedroom doors in their pyjamas while police officers searched their underwear drawers.
Just this week Sun reporter Chris Pollard has finally cleared after a year on bail under arrest after a 6am raid on his one-bedroom flat by NINE officers for simply taking a phonecall from a member of the public and writing a memo to his boss about it.
These were not hardened and dangerous terrorists, gangland bosses, drug dealers, white slavers – they were at worst possible white collar criminals with no criminal records whatsoever.
The scale of the anti-journalist police operation alone has been staggering – at a time of massive Met staff and resource cutbacks, they have dedicated 150 detectives and are blowing at least £40m on it.
But nothing on the blue-chip City firms, celebrities, and international law-firms that the SOCA report admits funded widespread similar crime.
I’m no fan of MPs and parliament over their shocking treatment of journalists since the so-called phone-hacking scandal erupted. I believe they have used it as an excuse to settle years of scores against newspapers they feel have mistreated them – in particular the Murdoch stable. After the MPs Expenses Scandal, it was too good an opportunity to miss. Typically they and the Establishment grabbed the chance to smash down on journalists with both fists.
The Met and the CPS, embarrassed by their earlier failings on the phone-hacking investigation, seized their chance too.
It was a perfect storm of retribution against the press, and damn the consequences for free speech.
But the “SOCA blue-chip scandal” has thrown a curveball. MP Keith Vaz, chair of the Commons home affairs select committee that led the anti-press charge, is plainly deeply disturbed.
He, and growing numbers of MPs, are increasingly doing the right thing and also asking “so what IS the difference?”
Yes, belatedly, after months of pressure from the press and some MPs like Keith Vaz, the Information Commissioner under Sect 5 of the Data Protection Act has opened an investigation into companies spotlighted by the nine-year-old SOCA blue-chip report, but there will be no dawn raids and the other horrors experienced by many journalists.
The ICO can’t even pass prison sentences under the DPA – unlike journalists facing possibly years behind bars. Luckily, after 19months of hell under arrest and on bail I was finally cleared in February 2013.
Tory MP Michael Ellis said to SOCA’s director general Trevor Pearce this week: “The impression is given in some quarters that its alright to pursue journalists for alleged offences but not when it comes to large City institutions.”
He asked bluntly “Why shouldn’t the public know the names?”
Other MPs have asked more directly “why have only the press been targeted by the police?”
I’m afraid the answer is simple. Hunger for revenge by bitter politicians against a press that has scorned them, police embarrassment at their own perceived failures, coupled with a number of instances of frankly appalling behaviour by a section of the tabloids, has given the State and the Establishment an opportunity to stamp down on and try to break the media.
They simply didn’t really care what the crime was, the excuse for emasculating the media and a pesky irritating free press was all that mattered.
That’s why SOCA kept the blue-chip hacker list secret. That’s why the Met aren’t investigating. That’s why the Home Office mandarins who knew all about the report were happy to bury it. They simply don’t care, simply don’t think it matters. Unless they can use it to strike a deadly blow at the power of the press….
That’s why I and many journalists like me were raided and dragged off to a police cell at 6am, why our houses were ransacked, why our families were put through hell…and why the police didn’t even invite the City and Legal execs in for a cosy chat.
Some may feel this doesn’t matter, that the press had got too big for it’s boots anyway. But it does. Because it’s far more difficult to get back freedoms than to give them up.
And Britain gives up, or allows the State to steal, its press freedom at it’s peril.