This week in central London, while Rebekah and Charlie Brooks were fronting the cameras to slam the Crown Prosecution Service for charging them with perverting the course of justice, two other arrests slipped under the radar.
With the word’s gaze fixed firmly on the Brookses, Operation Elveden — the broader criminal investigation into News International’s payments to police and military officials — quietly notched up arrest number 28 and 29.
UK media dutifully reported that a 50-year old public servant from Revenue and Customs was taken in for questioning on suspicion of misconduct in public office, while a 43-year-old woman was picked up for money laundering and aiding and abetting misconduct.
While the more glitzy Operation Weeting focuses on who knew what and when during the News of the World‘s phone hacking rampage, the related Elveden — that tracks cash and bribes to police under the supervision of the Independent Police Complaints Commission — has the potential to keep prosecutors at Rupert Murdoch’s throat for years to come.
There are over 60 Met officers working day and night on Elveden, the real ticking time bomb under News International’s Thomas More Square HQ threatening to destroy the empire and possibly David Cameron’s prime ministership.
Elveden, more than any other, strikes at the heart of the culture at Murdoch’s paper — one in which illegal activity permeated right through to the organisation’s most senior executives. When — not if — Elveden claims more scalps, the “few bad apples” defence will look increasingly far-fetched.
Since it launched way back in 2010, Rupert appears to have slowly realised its gravity. Way beyond the specific allegations of voicemail PIN graft, Elveden seemed to question his newspapers’ entire operating model. After the NotW scandal broke last July, he quickly sicced hundreds of lawyers onto the investigation and let police officers bunker down with them to comb through the paper trail.
Much of the information leading to the arrests to date has been volunteered by News’ “autonomous” Management and Standards Committee, formed to investigate “phone hacking, payments to police and all other related issues at News International” including at storied mastheads The Times and The Sunday Times.
The investigation, under the control of fearsome Met interrogator Sue Akers, is doubly significant because it will almost certainly form the basis for the scandal to shift across the pond to the heart of the empire. Jimmy Carter’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was aimed at US companies bribing foreign officials to illegally maintain their market share — a description that might summarise News’ efforts over decades to secure scoops and secret government information ahead of its rivals. A Stateside prosecution under FCPA would endanger News’ real cash cow — its US pay-TV and film assets that make up the vast majority of its $33 billion annual revenue.
While bereft of celebrity glamour, scalps so far under Elveden include Sun district editor Jamie Pyatt and deputy editor Geoff Webster. The CPS, in addition to pursuing Brooks’ circle, is currently considering whether charges should be brought against four other hacks, one police officer and six other people. Akers, who offered up damning testimony to the Leveson inquiry in February, also has carriage of Weeting (100 offices) and Tuleta, focusing on computer hacking.
News claimed last month that its MSC had finished the internal investigation, and that there was nothing to see beyond the disciplining of a single employee. The incriminating nuggets would appear to lie under The Sun‘s masthead, which was repeatedly splashing with similar dubiously-obtained information than its rotten Sunday sister.
Other arms of News International have also been known to funnel cash to police, allegedly for multifarious purposes. Emails obtained by The Australian Financial Review‘s Neil Chenoweth appeared to show that former News security arm NDS maintained an account devoted to payments to the Surrey plod. Those claims are also being investigated by Scotland Yard and may emerge as a lynchpin for any prosecution in New York under the FCPA.
The Met’s tentacles are now everywhere, with seven separate inquiries involving at least 200 officers, each with their own impressive code names: Operation Kilo into internal leaks from the hacking probe, Operation Tuleta and Operation Kalmyk covering computer hacking by journos and others, Operation Sacha (into the Brookses) and the Scottish Operation Rubicon.
Brooks — the former Sun editrix who before her two hacking arrests was known to the Met as a purveyor of violent domestic assaults — says she will defend the charges against herself and her inner circle. But for Murdoch’s profit-beating global empire, the unravelling has already begun.