Wednesday 5 December 2012

Hackgate - Varec Revisited - Dissent In The Ranks

The latest from my regular contributor.

Operation Varec is a little fuzzy round the edges.  It has its own formal 2010 inception date and terms of reference, but in some senses, it pre-dates that and grew out of John Yates' response to The Guardian article on the News of the World (NOTW) phone hacking, published July 8th 2009. This was Yates' 'Ratner moment' - undertaking a hasty fact-finding, presenting a same day, televised press statement, and later pronouncing on his own actions as "crap".

Lord Justice Leveson took the view that Yates could have, perhaps should have, excused himself from quasi-review of the phone hacking investigation - given his longstanding friendship with former NOTW executive, Neil Wallis.  Yet, even though his premature 'no new evidence, no re-investigation' press announcement was dismissive, should Yates accrue a little more credit?  After all, he didn't just let it drop there.

A series of meetings was convened by Yates over the next few months to establish if there were still skeletons in the closet of that original 2006 Goodman/Mulcaire investigation (Operation Caryatid).  Amongst those attending were DCS Phil Williams and DS Keith Surtees (investigating officers from 2006 operation), Steve Kavanagh (now sucessor to Sue Akers overseeing Operations Weeting, Elveden, Tuleta), DS Dean Haydon (Staff Officer to John Yates) and Sara Cheesley (Specialist Operations Press Desk, MET Directorate of Public Affairs).  The minutes of many of these are included as Exhibits to John Yates evidence to the Leveson Inquiry.  They seem characterised by a hyper-defensive mindset and a focus on presentational issues rather than evaluating the 2006 investigation.  Much effort was dedicated to developing responses to criticism of the Met from victims, government departments and Select Committee - reputational risk priortised perhaps at the expense of a more rigourous scrutiny of Operation Caryatid.  There is extensive background here in Sara Cheesley's witness statement to the Leveson Inquiry.

Recently, insights into those meetings have emerged which show a distinct lack of agreement on what action was needed - dissent in the ranks.  Tom Watson MP (3rd Dec 2012) raised this issue in the House of Commons:
May I draw his attention to a very late submission to the Leveson inquiry from Detective Chief Superintendent Surtees, which appeared on the (Leveson) website this week? He states that in July 2009, he argued internally that there was enough intelligence to warrant reopening the investigation into phone hacking. The hon. Gentleman will know that at no point was that raised with the Culture, Media and Sport Committee during its inquiry. That might be something that he and the Committee want to look at.  
Surtees 2nd Leveson witness statement (here) clearly spells out his trenchant view that the phone-hacking Investigation SHOULD be re-opened.  He says that he also suggested that Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) be called in.

Surtees assertions are echoed by Phil Williams (here).

Both submissions appear to be tardy attempts to mitigate criticism of the investigating officers contained in the Leveson Report. Presumably, these MET-sanctioned statements were prompted by Section 13 letters.

On 1st September 2010, the New York Times published their exposé ' Tabloid Hack Attack on Royals, and Beyond'.  On the face of it, the article included new information, new informants, and new victims of phone hacking - including Andy Coulson who was then Director of Communications at 10 Downing Street.  Obviously, a disinterested and objective consideration of NOTW phone-hacking was again necessary.  This was a crucial point at which John Yates had another chance to step back, recuse himself, and request that the Commissioner task a different senior officer team without the baggage and closeness to NOTW.  However, Yates chose to have oversight of the new enquiries - Operation Varec - himself.  His own Staff Officer, Dean Haydon, was appointed Senior Investigating Officer (SIO).  Haydon had been closely associated with the 2009 scrutiny as a member (and minutes taker) of the Gold group meetings.

Started formally on 2nd September 2010, Varec's primary objective was
To assess whether allegations being made in the media since 1st September 2010 provided any new evidence of criminal offences, namely unlawful interception of communications, at News of the World, in 2005/6 
It has been alleged that, within ten days of Varec commencing, a senior MET officer contacted NOTW offering to supply information. (Daily Telegraph) The media stories addressed by Operation Varec covered the New York Times story, Guardian follow up, and the Channel 4 Dispatches October 2010 documentary 'Tabloids, Tories and Telephone Hacking'.  When Dean Haydon contacted The Guardian for information, Alan Rusbridger replied in a scathing email
Nick Davies was further able to reveal incontrovertible evidence of the involvement in phone hacking of other NoW reporters and executives: the material is sitting in your own files,... Seeking to obtain evidence from the Guardian should, it seems to us, be a matter of last resort for the police... But the fact that three separate news organizations have been able to uncover this story must give you hope that you, too, could get to the bottom of it without too much trouble   
Twenty one strands of inquiry by Operation Varec were followed, including:
  • Asking the New York Times to supply names of their anonymous sources.  They declined.
  • Interviewing ex-NOTW's Sean Hoare.  Contraversially, he was interviewed under caution and so refused to answer any questions. Another ex-NOTW journalist simply refused to speak with the police - let alone attend an interview.  
  • Other NOTW executives and journalists were questioned about Operation Caryatid and refused to answer, denied any knowledge, or (on legal advice) submitted pre-prepared written statements.
  • Anonymous allegations were received by the MET, implicating three NOTW journalists in phone hacking. Each was written to by Operation Varec requesting information. None of the three responded.
  • Colin Myler, NOTW Editor, was asked to provide a list of journalists still employed since 2006 (in addition to those above).  Myler did so.  Every one of the list of 19 journalists was individually written to by Varec to ask for cooperation and interview.  Not a single one of the 19 even replied.
Unsurprisingly, Operation Varec came to the conclusion that they were unable to obtain any admissible evidence to warrant re-investigating phone- hacking at the News of the World. For details of the 21 investigatory strands, see here.

The genesis of Operation Varec still leaves some key questions unanswered:
  • On the first opportunity to recuse himself from the 2009 quasi-review, why did John Yates not do so?
  • On the second opportunity to recuse himself from the 2010 investigation, Operation Varec, why did John Yates not do so?
  • Given the obduracy, obstructiveness and disregard shown by such a large number of former and serving NOTW journalists, why did the MET continue to collude with News International's thin veneer of cooperating with the police?
Assistant Commissioner Yates resigned on 18th July 2011.

Related Articles
Hackgate - Dacre's Dodgy Dossier - War Of Attrition 
Hackgate - Sue Akers' Swansong
Hackgate - "Newsdesk Here, Kelvin Speaking..."
Hackgate - Andre Baker - A Hackgate Footnote?
Hackgate - Ten To Watch For
Hackgate - Dear Surrey Police

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