From Scotland Yard - a significant admission
In June, the Metropolitan Police was declared to be “institutionally corrupt” by an independent Panel examining the murder in 1987 of the private investigator Daniel Morgan.
I suspect many organisations with such a label attached would buckle to the point of collapse; heads would roll and there’d be an action plan to bring about fundamental change. None of that appears to have happened yet in the Met, although, as I'll explain later, there has been an important admission.
After the report was released, the force denied the charge of institutional corruption arguing the Panel had, in effect, adopted a definition that was not universally recognised as ‘corruption’. The Panel said the Met had concealed or denied failings "for the sake of the organisation’s public image". That, it went on, amounted to "dishonesty on the part of the organisation for reputational benefit and constitutes a form of institutional corruption." Scotland Yard’s refusal to accept that central conclusion, while acknowledging police wrongdoing in the past, gave the damaging impression that it had completely missed the point the Panel was making: that the Met puts its own reputation above the interests of the public.
The Panel’s report is dense and lengthy, stretching to over 1200 pages, and takes time to read and digest; that may partly explain why the Met’s initial response felt like a reflex, rather than anything particularly reflective or considered. “It is a matter of great regret that no one has been brought to justice and that our mistakes have compounded the pain suffered by Daniel’s family,” said Dame Cressida Dick. “For that I apologise again."
Two months have now passed and the Met Commissioner has clearly been examining the findings more fully. She set out her thoughts in a letter to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, which was published last week. Coverage of the letter was overshadowed by tragic events elsewhere - the shootings in Plymouth and the turmoil in Afghanistan - but it deserves a close look, not least because of the admission that it contains which I cannot recall any Commissioner having made before.
Dame Cressida presents detailed reasons in the letter as to why the Met still does not accept the Panel’s definition of corruption. She says the force "utilises" a definition set by a police counter-corruption body, the essence of which is that corruption is the "improper exercise of a power or privilege for the purpose of achieving a personal benefit, or a benefit or detriment for another person" - quite a distance from the Panel's terminology. The Commissioner also does not agree that the Panel's description of the force's actions during the case "reflect the Met I know or our actions in recent times". And she justifies the Met's ultra-cautious approach to disclosing documents to the Panel, outlined in a previous blog I wrote, by saying police have duties to "protect victims, informants, data, intelligence and due process", but adding that "members of the Panel with appropriate security clearance had full and unrestricted access to all the material they requested and that exceptional levels of disclosure were achieved".
Crucially, however, Dame Cressida acknowledges a serious weakness in the force. A weakness that has been evident for some time but has rarely, if ever, been referred to in public by such a senior officer.
She writes: “As an organisation we are proud of the men and women who work for us and the work they do every day serving the public. We do acknowledge that occasionally this can lead to an overly defensive attitude. We accept that as an organisation we could listen more. We could do even more to be - and to show ourselves to be - open and transparent, to explain what we do and why we do it. This is a vital part of gaining and retaining public confidence and trust.”
So, there it is: the Met is too defensive at times, needs to listen more and open up further.
It may not seem like much, just a couple of sentences, but it is significant. It goes to the root of a problem that I believe has bedevilled the UK's largest police force for years - group think. From a fixation with the wrong murder suspect in the Rachel Nickell case to an insistence that there was nothing more to phone hacking than it had already uncovered to a calamitously misguided belief in the complainant in Operation Midland, group think has infected some of the Met's most high-profile inquiries and doubtless many other lesser-known investigations as well.
It has manifested itself in a failure to give proper weight to dissenting opinions, to challenge orthodox views, to go against the grain, to bring in outsiders to provide an alternative point of view. There has at times been a culture where officers and staff aren't comfortable saying, "I don't agree with that." During the 2009 to 2011 phone hacking scandal, when the force was accused of ignoring and facilitating improper and potentially illegal press practices, someone said to me that the "problem with the Met is that no one reads the Guardian". In other words, those at the top table were too similar - and simply reinforced each other's views. It certainly appeared that none of its leaders took the string of hacking allegations in the Guardian seriously, until it was too late.
In May 2013, when Theresa May, who was then Home Secretary, set up the independent inquiry panel into Daniel Morgan's murder, that was the moment for the Met to stop being defensive about the case, to cast aside concerns about its reputation - and to open itself up to outside experts. Instead, the report painted a picture of a force that had retreated to its bunker, obfuscating and obstructing the Panel's vital work. Similar concerns have been raised about the Met during the public inquiry into undercover policing, which was set up in 2015 but may not conclude until 2024.
Every organisation, every police force, must look after its staff and shield them from unsubstantiated allegations and abuse. Of course it is important that reputations are protected where they at risk from unjustified or exaggerated criticism. But there is a line to be drawn between that - and an overly defensive and closed-minded approach. Dame Cressida Dick acknowledges that the force she commands has crossed that line. It's a notable statement that if acted upon in the way she intends will lead the Metropolitan Police to be more respected and more trusted by the communities it serves.