LONDON - One of Scotland Yard’s former top-ranking officers struggled yesterday to explain his close ties to people who later became suspects in the British phone-hacking saga, denying any suggestion that he refused to reinvestigate the scandal to protect his drinking buddies.
But former Assistant Commissioner John Yates had trouble explaining the nature of his convivial relationship with senior News of the World journalists Neil Wallis and Lucy Panton - both of whom have since been arrested.
Speaking via video link, Yates told a judge-led inquiry into the scandal that he was close to Wallis, saying the two traveled to soccer games together and regularly met for dinner or drinks at fancy restaurants. Still, he said that did not affect his judgment.
“I absolutely know - and guarantee - that none of that played any part in my decision-making,’’ he said. “My conscience is absolutely clear on that.’’
Yates played a key role in the widening phone-hacking scandal when he knocked down a 2009 story published in the Guardian newspaper that suggested illegal behavior at the News of the World tabloid was more widespread than previously acknowledged. Yates took only six hours to veto any further investigation, saying there was no evidence to back the Guardian’s claim.
“Time has shown that to be not the greatest call,’’ Yates admitted.
Many would agree. The scandal Yates refused to investigate has since exploded, derailing the career of the prime minister’s top media aide, causing media baron Rupert Murdoch to shut down Britain’s top-selling Sunday tabloid, and triggering the arrest, resignation, or suspension of some 40 journalists, public officials, and media executives.
Yates was forced to revisit his relationship with Wallis by inquiry lawyer Robert Jay, who ran through a list of meetings the police commander had with Wallis at places such as The Ivy restaurant, where bottles of champagne do not come much cheaper than $100, or the exclusive Mandarin Hotel, where the Chinese premier stayed in London.
Yates insisted - repeatedly - that the dinners were of a personal nature and that the two men did not talk about his police work, or at least not in depth.
But he was thrown on the defensive when Jay read an e-mail addressed to Panton, formerly the News of the World’s crime reporter, who Yates met several times a year.
The 2010 e-mail, written by Panton’s editor James Mellor, asks Panton if she has spoken to Yates about a high-profile terror case.
“Really need an exclusive splash line,’’ the e-mail read. “Time to call in all those bottles of champagne.’’
Was Yates being plied with champagne in exchange for news tips?
“That didn’t happen,’’ Yates insisted.
No champagne? he was asked.
“There may well have been the very odd occasion, where a bottle was shared with several people,’’ Yates said via videolink from Bahrain, where he is now helping to advise the authoritarian Gulf state’s police force.
His testimony did not impress hacking victims.
John Prescott, former British deputy prime minister whose phone messages were intercepted by the News of the World, tweeted that Yates “spent 6 hours reviewing phone hacking & missed EVERYTHING.’’ He added: “Good luck Bahrain.’’
Scotland Yard has been widely criticized for its failure to get to grips with the hacking scandal, with suggestions that overlapping ties between British police and journalists helped keep the wrongdoing at the News of the World - and its sister paper, The Sun - under wraps.
Earlier yesterday, Peter Clarke, a former Scotland Yard counterterrorism chief, explained that one of the reasons police could not devote much time to the original investigation was because of the 2005 London transit bombings.
He said the London force was so undermanned it had to enlist 1,000 officers from other departments. In that context, the investigation into phone hacking had to take the back seat, he said.