There were sea changes at the Metropolian Police Service (MPS) and at the News of the World (NOTW) as the 1990s came to a close. The new MPS Commissioner – John Stevens – wanted to encourage positive press through a closer relationship with national newspapers.
At NOTW a new editor – Rebekah Wade – had been appointed who was keen get headlines for their investigative exposés.
A new millenium needed a new modus operandi.
But there was a problem. NOTW could no longer use their favourite private detectives, Southern Investigations, as one of its owners had got a lengthy jail sentence for perverting the course of justice. Southern Investigations had been essential to NOTW, providing video surveillance equipment, bodyguards and customised information gathering.
In 1999, NOTW commissioned Southern to put then Deputy MPS Commissioner John Stevens under surveillance. This was on an unfounded and untrue tip that he was flying from London to Northumbria to visit a secret mistress. Whether this surveillance was with a view to publishing a story or whether it was to gain leverage is a contested point. In addition, NOTW may have used Southern investigations to put their own newspaper staff under surveillance. (chapter 14 ‘Bent Coppers’, Graeme McLagan)
It was believed that Southern had played a part in setting up newspaper stings… not only hired out expensive electronic listening devices to the media but also delivered sting ‘packages’… for example, if the agency received information from one of its police contacts that someone was dealing in drugs. Southern would then mount its own sting, planting drugs on the man or arranging for someone to pretend to want to buy drugs. A newspaper would be tipped off to be at the sting to obtain evidence. On the eve of the publication of the story, the newspaper would hand its evidence over to the police, who would then move in and arrest the criminal. The newspaper got its exclusive. The police were happy because they were seen to be catching criminals. Southern was paid for its help, and the agency passed on some of the money to the officer who had supplied the original information.
With their ‘at arm’s length’ PIs virtually knocked out of commission, NOTW appears to have set up its own operation. Taking it in-house would certainly be cheaper, although perhaps putting their plausibile deniability at risk.
Rebekah Wade initiated a new Investigations Team. Miskiw, Marunchak and Mahmood had all had contact with Southern Investigations previously, commissioning their work for NOTW. These three became the team’s senior figures. in the division of labour, Greg Miskiw controlled desk assets and information dark arts. He poached blagger and phone hacker Glenn Mulcaire from his previous employer and ensured him an exclusive contract to the NOTW. Miskiw was the conduit to a network of PIs (including Steve Whittamore) who could provide targets’ personal information, such as car ownership from its registration and criminal records.
Mulcaire became known as ‘Greg’s man’ and ex-directory or reverse phone details etc were said to be done by ‘Greg’s people’. Alex Marunchak deployed his extensive contacts in support of all manner of investigations – the fixer. He already had extensive experience working with Mazher Mahmood who fronted stings and bagged the front page bylines. For example, Marunchak and Mahmood had collaborated on the David Mellor sting, exposing his affair with an actress. Mahmood became the new team’s Investigations Editor.
A number of other journalists were allocated to the team, but two more in-house specialists were required – photographer Bradley Page, and Conrad Brown who “took responsibility for providing covert video equipment and assisted with surveillance. Surveillance involved the use of covert recording devices and watching and following targets.” (here)
The incoming MPS Commissioner John Stevens wanted to encourage positive press through a closer relationship with national newspapers. His Director of Public Affairs, Dick Fedorcio (here) was in favour of Stevens’ new strategy. A key lunch meeting was convened early in 2000 comprising Stevens, Fedorcio, Rebekah Wade and Alex Marunchak.
Was this the crucial point where MPS-NOTW common goals and mutual benefits were mapped out? What exactly was on the table for discussion? Who was grooming who?
From that point, MPS and NOTW enjoyed a special relationship of collaboration, particularly in standing up Mazher Mahmood stings. NOTW’s Investigations team maintained a ruthless circle of secrecy essential to protecting their scoop. Any leak could risk the front page splash.
In 2002, the MPS started a re-investigation of the murder of Daniel Morgan – who had been co-owner of Southern Investigations until his violent death in 1987. The Leveson Inquiry was told that as re-investigation started, some of NOTW’s Investigations team used their dark arts skills to undertake surveillance of the officer heading the police enquiry team, at the request of two of the murder suspects. (pp 13-16 here)
Allegedly, Miskiw commissioned Mulcaire to blag and hack intrusive personal details of the targets. On the face of it, MPS confidentiality was breached in order to get home address, work histories etc. Marunchak organised the surveillance using NOTW-leased vans. (here)
The covert surveillance was rumbled, police officers questioned one van occupant – who turned out to be Mazher Mahmood’s favoured surveillance photographer, Bradley Page. (here)
No known police action was taken against NOTW staff – no interviews, no cautions, no arrests.
Yet the Investigations team stings rolled on, with MPS collaboration. They grabbed short term headlines, though they didn’t all secure good publicity by way of convictions. Each revealed more and more of NOTW questionable methods and drew increasing criticism (here)
In the Beckham ‘kidnap plot’, “on October 30th 2002 – 3 days before the arrests – Mahmood along with Qureshi met DI Horrocks and DC Hulme (MPS Specialist Operations) to provide the information he had gathered – including one of the members having a firearm and that they were planning a kidnap. It is at this meeting Mahmood told the police that he did not want to disclose the identity of the target at that stage because “the editor [Brooks] would like to keep that matter a secret for as long as possible and thus not spoil the story she was planning to publish.”
The case collapsed when Mahmood was revealed as having paid the main prosecution witness. Mahmood and Andy Coulson were rewarded with drinks in MPS Commissioner’s plush office, whilst he praised their work in the cause of law and order.
This mutually cosy NOTW-MPS working relationship even survived the later arrests and convictions of Goodman and Mulcaire. Indeed during that very investigation – Operation Caryatid – the same MPS directorate was colluding in Mahmood’s mythic red mercury, ‘dirty bomb’ plot exposé. That case too collapsed at trial. As yet, no-one at the MPS has totted up how much the failed stings of Mazher Mahmood have cost – it is without doubt in the multi-millions. (here)
Commissioner Stevens generous dealings with NOTW were not universally popular with hard-pressed working MPS police officers though:
One senior police officer recalls the sort of collaboration that went on with News International in the early 2000s. ‘There was a time when they were all over us’ he says. ‘Mazher Mahmood was forever giving us jobs, and us coming in on the back of it. It was always a fait accompli, there was no question of us saying – Hang on, is this one a sensible use of our time and resources? We just had to get on with it. The Commander at the time was quite aware of it. It was generally their management talking to our management, but it always came through a chain of command down to us on the shop floor.
Another senior Met figure echoes this, suggesting that the Met did not appreciate every aspect of the arrangement: ‘The deal was always that the paper had to be able to print the story first, then they’d hand the stuff over to us.” (The News Machine, chapter 10)
On his retirement from the MPS Commissioner’s post, John Stevens was given a lucrative contract as a News International columnist. paid at £5,000 – £7,000 per article, Stevens’ journalistic workload could not have been too onerous as each article was in fact ghost written for him by a senior NOTW executive.
Such MPS-NOTW ‘arrangements’ have yet to receive full public scrutiny. Miskiw has since served a custodial sentence for phone hacking, Marunchak has been questioned (but not charged) for unrelated alleged wrongdoing. And as for ‘Fake Sheikh’ Mazher Mahmood, he is currently suspended from the Sun on Sunday pending a full investigation.
Despite mounting a legal case attempting to prevent transmission, BBC Panorama aired its own exposé of Mahmood’s integrity last night – a rare case of the biter bit.
This post originally appeared on the ¿Bellingcat website and is reproduced with permission and thanks