Editor's update: Sean Hoare, a former News of the World reporter and the main whistleblower on the phone-hacking scandal, has been found dead at his home in suburban London. Police say they are not treating his death as suspicious. Hoare was the main source for a story in The New York Times last September that rekindled the hacking story.
LONDON — Britain's phone hacking scandal enters its third week with no sign of slowing down. Yesterday, came two bomb-shells.
First, Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the News of the World, and until her resignation Friday, chief executive of News International and unofficial "fifth daughter" of boss Rupert Murdoch, was arrested for her part in the affair. She was interrogated for 12 hours and released on bail.
Then, Sir Paul Stephenson, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police resigned his position. This followed the revelation on Thursday that he had hired a former editor of the News of the World, Neil Wallis, as a public relations consultant. Then the tabloid Daily Mirror revealed yesterday that Stephenson had accepted hospitality at an exclusive spa — whose public relations was run by Neil Wallis' company.
The second of these two events takes the extraordinary saga to the highest level of official life in Britain. The Met is the largest police force in the country. It's commissioner oversees a staff of more than 52,000 including 33,000 full time officers and a further 14,000 "special constables," and administers a budget more than 4.1 billion pounds (about $6.6 billion).
John Yates, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, also resigned on Monday. He was in charge of anti-terrorism and was widely expected to reach the top job eventually. In 2009, following the Guardian's first stories on phone hacking, Yates was asked to look into whether there should be another inquiry. After a single day reviewing evidence he said no, there was not. That mistake has cost him his career.
Running the Met is a big job — a combination of New York City Police commissioner, FBI Director, and head of the Secret Service. In addition to being in charge of the nuts and bolts policing of London, the Met Commissioner has major national responsibilities in counter-terrorism, and protecting the Queen and the Prime Minister and other members of the government.
Sir Paul was by all accounts doing the job very well. Planning for the London Olympics — just 12 months away — was dominating his time and he was working hard to implement the budget cuts that Prime Minister David Cameron's austerity drive is requiring of all government departments.
Then the phone hacking scandal broke wide open and suddenly Stephenson's job was under threat for the same reason that every senior figure connected to the nexus of politics, policing and the press is under threat: their personal connections are too close.
Last Thursday, Neil Wallis, who was Andy Coulson's deputy at the News of the World when phone hacking was rife and who then replaced him when Coulson resigned over the affair, was arrested for "conspiring to intercept communications." The same day, Stephenson revealed that from 2009-2010 Wallis worked two days a month for him as a PR consultant — at a £1,000 ($1,600) a day. It turned out that some of the advice related to damping down the phone hacking story.
That was bad enough, but Sunday's headlines that the commissioner had stayed for free at Champney's — a spa where the rich and famous go to recover from the rigors of life in the spotlight — and which, coincidentally, is represented by Wallis's PR firm provoked the proverbial excrement storm. The owner of the spa angrily defended Stephenson's visit saying they had been personal friends for 20 years and that Wallis had nothing to do with it.
But it is a measure of how much things have changed in Britain that the negative speculation about the Champney's stay forced Stephenson to consider his position and resign. He did not go quietly. His resignation statement is being interpreted as an attack on British Prime Minister David Cameron — although, this being Britain, it requires a psychic's skill for reading between the lines.
The commissioner refers to Wallis's relationship to Coulson and Coulson's relationship to Cameron. It has emerged that prior to hiring Andy Coulson as his Downing Street communications director, the prime minister was warned by very senior figures that Coulson was liable to come under more scrutiny for his role in phone hacking. Cameron ignored the advice and since Coulson's arrest two weeks ago has been trying to duck questions about why he did not listen. For good measure, Stephenson notes that Wallis did not resign over phone hacking as Coulson did — and so there was no reason to suspect he knew anything about the situation.
That is a little disingenuous. By 2009 it should have been a no-brainer — you don't hire a former editor at the News of the World — either to run your communications department or as a consultant for getting better PR. In the case of Stephenson's hiring of Wallis, it came just a few months after the Guardian's Nick Davies had broken the initial story on the phone hacking scandal. The commissioner may not have known the details — but you don't get to be 'Top Cop' without having a suspicious mind. It's hard to believe he didn't suspect there was more to the story than he had been told.
So what's next in this story that has more interconnected twists and turns than a strand of DNA?
Tomorrow Rupert Murdoch and his son James will give testimony to the MP's on the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. They will be joined by Rebekah Brooks, in spite of her arrest. The Murdochs' session with parliament promises to be a big moment — it will be televised to a breathless nation. It is Britain's equivalent to the Watergate hearings or Iran-Contra. Indeed, the anticipation is so great that it may end up being a disappointment.
But in the intervening 24 hours anything could happen — and while waiting for that anything, a question is forming: If the scandal can claim the top law enforcement officer's scalp is anyone at the top of the tree safe? How long before James Murdoch is visited by the Metropolitan Police? And if not a police visit, how long before shareholders in News Corp and BSkyB demand his resignation?
How long before Prime Minister Cameron has to give more details about his relationship with Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks? Cameron has already cut short his visit to Africa this week. Over the weekend it was revealed that even after Coulson resigned he spent a weekend at Chequers, the prime minister's weekend retreat. Monday it was announced that Parliament's summer recess has been delayed for a day so that Cameron can update MP's and make a further statement about his relationship to the scandal.
Ask any PR adviser — whether or not they worked at the News of the World — will tell you appearance is everything in political success. Something doesn't "appear" right in Cameron's ducking and diving over his relationship with the pair.