At a drive-through McDonald’s in east London, News of the World journalists would hand over the wads of cash to police officers in return for information.
The burger bar is just round the corner from News International’s Wapping headquarters. During 2003 over £100,000 was handed over to just five police officers.
It is just one grubby incident among many that shine a dim light on the reality of police, politics and the media. The story goes beyond cash-filled brown envelopes or even the Murdoch newspapers.
The media scandal which erupted after the revelation that the News of the World had hacked missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler’s phone in 2002 is just the tip of the iceberg.
The main issue is not bad journalism. It is the unholy alliance between the police, the media and the political establishment.
Top cops knew about the bribes, as did senior politicians in all major political parties.
For example, take Jonathan Rees, a private investigator employed by the News of the World.
His name came to light after the end of a long‑running investigation into the axe‑murder of his business partner. Rees was found innocent in March this year.
It emerged that he was paid up to £150,000 a year by the News of the World, and more by other newspapers, to supply illegally obtained information.
A huge raft of police officers took money to get evidence for the tabloids. Some were involved in large scale drug smuggling.
Rees was jailed for seven years in 2000 for planting cocaine on a woman in order to discredit her during divorce proceedings. The News of the World rehired him after his release.
News International’s chief executive Rebekah Brooks and the former Downing Street communications chief Andy Coulson both edited the News of the World while Rees worked there. Both are close friends of David Cameron.
In the unlikely event that Brooks didn’t already know about this corruption, Scotland Yard informed her in 2006, when they told her that some of her most senior journalists were up to their eyes in the scams. At that point the News of the World got their other investigator, Glenn Mulcaire—who would later be jailed for hacking the royals’ phones—to investigate the cop running the inquiry.
Scotland Yard chose not to mount a formal inquiry.
But a spin-off from that scandal was that in the same year the Information Commissioner produced a devastating report, What Price Privacy Now? It detailed thousands of dubious or criminal acts by journalists or agents of national newspapers: illegally obtaining driving licence details, illegal criminal records or vehicle registration searches, telephone reverse traces and mobile telephone conversions.
It listed 1,218 instances at the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday alone, 802 at The People and 681 at the Daily Mirror.
There is a direct correlation between the number of stories papers got out of the private detectives and the amount of coverage they gave to the phone hacking scandal until this week.
And it involved hundreds of corrupt officers. Not one journalist and not one police officer was prosecuted.
It was ignored despite outlining how journalists were employing private investigators to hack phones, and bribe officials and police officers to get information.
And that was just one investigation of one private investigator. The systematic use of bribery by the cops not just to provide stories for the media but to leak information to both frame people and cover up other corruption is yet to be fully revealed.
Higher up the social scale subtler methods are used than brown envelopes.
There have been a series of police investigations into the phone hacking scandal—all of them have concealed more information than they revealed.
Metropolitan police commissioner Andy Hayman ran two of them. This is the same officer who “chose to mislead the public” over the shooting of Jean Charles de Menenzes, according to an Independent Police Complaints Commission report.
His investigations discovered “only a handful” of victims of the News of the World phone hacking. But this was based on the same boxes of evidence the Met now say show over 4,000 people were affected.
And what happened to Haydon after he left the Met? He went on to be a columnist for News International.
Brooks admitted to a parliamentary committee that the News of the World paid police officers.
But MPs abandoned the effort to discover the truth. Senior Tory and Labour whips told members of the select committee that News International papers would come after them.
The scandal has shown that in times of economic crisis the establishment often goes into chaos but not in a linear way.
After the bankers and MPs, police look to be the next arm of the state to be discredited.