Crossing the Line
Did you guess it then?
The revelation in the final, underwhelming, episode of season six of Line of Duty that “H” was DCI Ian Buckells may have been a disappointment for those expecting a more dramatic denouement. But it was probably a more realistic turn of events for a dullard of a detective to be unmasked as the “fourth man” than the Chief Constable or even Superintendent Ted Hastings, the head of AC 12, the fictitious Central Police's anti-corruption unit. In fact, this run has contained more nods towards genuine policing and crime stories than previous seasons, with barely disguised references to the murders of Jill Dando and Stephen Lawrence among those I spotted.
Indeed, the success of Line of Duty is partly because it carries traces of authenticity while being completely ridiculous. One moment, DI Kate Fleming is quoting Section 17 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984; the next she’s racing around town with a corrupt officer who’s just tried to have her killed. Mostly, the programme bears no resemblance whatsoever to the work of police anti-corruption units (or professional standards departments, as they’re known); if it did, we’d have spent Sunday nights watching AC 12 get to the interesting bit of an inquiry and then make a referral to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) - the watchdog responsible for investigating the most serious allegations of misconduct and corruption. The IOPC, poor thing, doesn’t get a mention.
But while the programme takes large doses of dramatic license with car chases and corpses, police corruption is a depressing reality. The most recent report on the subject, published in 2015 by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (then HMIC, now HMICFRS), concluded that although there was no evidence to suggest corruption was “endemic” within the police service, some forces in England and Wales lacked the capability to seek it out and prevent it. HMIC found that in the previous year there’d been more than 3,000 investigations into offences “most likely to have involved corruption”, resulting in over 900 police officers and staff either facing disciplinary sanctions or leaving the service. The cases included unauthorised disclosure of information; bribery; sexual misconduct; theft, fraud and dishonesty; and drug-related offences. At the time, the 43 constabularies employed a total of around 200,000 officers and staff, meaning that those at the centre of corruption inquiries represented 0.45% of the workforce. Mike Cunningham, the then Inspector of Constabulary who’d led the review, pointed out that although the problem wasn’t widespread the “corrosive nature of corruption means that even a single case can be damaging to public confidence”.
It certainly appears that way at the moment: trust in policing has been shaken by a series of apparently unrelated cases, all linked to abuse of power. Two of the most recent examples involved Metropolitan Police officers: Ben Hannam, who was jailed for belonging to a neo-Nazi terrorist group; and Benjamin Kemp, sacked for hitting a vulnerable teenage girl at least 30 times with a baton. At the same time, disturbing revelations continue to seep out of the Undercover Policing Inquiry, the latest of which was the disclosure that Met officers collected intelligence on the anti-racism activities of Lord (Peter) Hain from 1969 until 1994, three years after he became the MP for Neath. A police document, dated 2003, described the Labour politician as a "South African terrorist" - at a time when he was a Cabinet minister.
There is though one case with which Line of Duty has more parallels than any other. And by a quirk of timing, we will soon be closer to learning what happened in it than we’ve been before. This month, an independent panel is expected to publish its report into the murder of Daniel Morgan, a private detective who was found with an axe embedded in his head at a pub car park in south-east London in 1987. Scotland Yard has admitted, more than once, that police corruption played a key part in the failure to bring those responsible for the killing to justice. Just how far and how wide those corrupt influences extended will arguably be the most critical finding of the panel’s report, which has taken eight years to complete.
Daniel Morgan’s murder, the subject of a superb Channel 4 documentary, remains one of the murkiest and most disturbing cases of police corruption our country has seen. Tragically, it really did happen and is not made up like the plots and characters in Line of Duty. It serves as a chilling reminder that there are real victims of police corruption - and also, that however far-fetched the BBC drama might be, at its core there’s a kernel of truth.