Close ties between UK media, police scrutinized

AP News
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Posted: Jul 19, 2011 5:55 PM
Close ties between UK media, police scrutinized

One senior journalist worked as a media consultant to Scotland Yard, helping to shape its public message. A second worked as a police interpreter, privy to confidential information. A third allegedly served as a police informant, passing on sensitive material in return for tips.

Across Scotland Yard, more than a dozen current and former employees of Rupert Murdoch's media empire have found work, raising questions about whether the ties were so close that Britain's premier police force shied away from investigating allegations of lawbreaking at his now-closed tabloid News of the World.

Keith Vaz, chairman of the parliamentary committee questioning senior police officers Tuesday about their links to the press, said that officials seemed to treat ex-reporters "almost like a fashion accessory."

"People leave the News of the World and come to work for the police or a politician," he said.

Scotland Yard's failure to properly investigate allegations of spying, corruption and unethical behavior by News of the World journalists has already cost two of the country's most senior policemen their jobs and led Britain's police watchdog to open an inquiry into the force's top brass.

The past two weeks have also unearthed a series of overlapping personal, professional and business interests between Murdoch's British newspaper division, News International, and the police officers supposedly investigating it.

Take Neil Wallis, once a senior News of the World journalist, arrested last week as part of the police inquiry into the tabloid's illegal interception of voice mails.

Until shortly before his arrest, Wallis was working at a $1,600-a-day (1,000-pound-a-day) job advising Scotland Yard on its media strategy. Wallis' daughter also found work at the Metropolitan Police _ her resume had been submitted by none other than outgoing Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner John Yates, who announced his resignation Monday.

Departing Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson has acknowledged dining 18 times with News of the World editors over the past five years.

Then there's Alex Marunchak, who rose to become editor of the News of the World's Irish edition. Scotland Yard said that between 1980 and 2000 the Ukrainian-speaking Marunchak was on its list of London interpreters who provide translation services for victims, witnesses and suspects.

At the same time, Marunchak was working for News of the World, raising the possibility he may have drawn on his police work to fill his newspaper's pages.

In a statement, Scotland Yard acknowledged that "this may cause concern and that some professions may be incompatible with the role of an interpreter." It promised to investigate.

Marunchak, who is also accused of using detectives to spy on a British intelligence officer and a police detective, denies any wrongdoing.

Questions about police ties have also surfaced concerning Neville Thurlbeck, the News of the World's chief reporter, who was arrested in April an allegations of hacking into voice mails.

The Evening Standard reported Tuesday that Thurlbeck led a double life as a police informant for Scotland Yard, a role it said enabled him to get sensitive police data on a serving lawmaker and threats against the queen.

Scotland Yard declined to address the accusation, saying it never discusses police informants. Quizzed about the allegation by lawmakers, Stephenson said he "certainly would not have been aware of it."

Thurlbeck did not return a message seeking comment through his profile on a professional networking site and it was not immediately clear if he had a lawyer.

Finally, of the 45 people who work in the Metropolitan Police's press office fielding calls from the media, drawing up official statements and pitching stories to journalists, 10 have held jobs at News International publications, Stephenson said.

It works the other way around too. Former assistant police commissioner Andy Hayman, once the force's top counterterrorism officer, is now a columnist for the Murdoch-owned Times of London. Hayman told lawmakers last week that "any hint that I am in their back pocket is unfounded."

In some respects, News International's links to the police aren't surprising. It's common for former journalists to work as press officers, and given that Murdoch publications account for 40 percent of Britain's newspaper readership, it's not unexpected that top officers spend time chatting with the group's executives.

And politicians have also drawn upon the services of News International journalists _ most notably former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who worked as David Cameron's communications director before resigning in January as the phone hacking scandal heated up. He was arrested July 8 and is free on bail.

The close relationship between police and the media organization they were supposed to be investigating has harmed Scotland Yard's image _ as have allegations that several officers accepted bribes from journalists.

Metropolitan Police Federation chairman Peter Smyth said that the focus on allegations of police wrongdoing was sapping morale across the force and appealed for patience while judicial authorities did their work.

"If there is evidence of corruption by individual officers, let them be prosecuted through the courts," he said.