Scotland Yard under pressure in hacking scandal

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The resignation of two of its top officers in less than 24 hours over their failure to tackle Britain's phone-hacking scandal leaves London's police force with its biggest crisis in decades.

Home Secretary Theresa May on Monday announced a parliamentary review of police corruption and a police inspectorate inquiry after Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson and Assistant Commissioner John Yates stepped down.

The Met has been criticised for its handling of the original 2006 investigation into voicemail hacking at the News of the World tabloid, and a decision by Yates in 2009 not to review the evidence it had.

But more damaging is the question of whether Scotland Yard was too cosy with executives at Rupert Murdoch's News International, which owned the now-defunct tabloid, and whether some officer received payments from the paper.

"Clearly at the Metropolitan Police the issues have been around whether or not the investigation is being pursued properly," Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday.

The Met is running two investigations into the scandal. Operation Weeting is probing allegations of phone hacking, while Operation Elveden is investigating allegations of inappropriate payments to police.

Stephenson, Britain's top police officer, stepped down on Sunday after two years in charge, becoming the highest-profile figure to quit in the affair. Yates then resigned on Monday.

Stephenson was personally blamed over the force's employment of former News of the World deputy editor Neil Wallis as a media advisor for 11 months from October 2009. When he quit he said his integrity was "completely intact".

Wallis, who was arrested last week over hacking claims, also worked for the luxury spa resort which hosted Stephenson for five weeks while he recuperated from operations to remove a pre-cancerous growth.

Stephenson met News International aides 18 times from 2006 to 2010, including eight meetings with Wallis when he was at the paper.

Yates came under fire for deciding, after a brief review, not to reopen the files on the News of the World in 2009 in response to fresh allegations.

The original investigation into phone hacking resulted in two convictions, that of a News of the World journalist and a private investigator, in 2007.

The Met did not consider the case a priority at the time, given the terror threat following the deadly 2005 London bombings, and thought the convictions would send a strong signal to the media industry.

When the probe was reopened in January 2011 after investigative work by the Guardian and New York Times it emerged there were thousands more undiscovered possible hacking victims in amongst the 11,000 pages of documents.

Wallis was not the only Murdoch link.

Former officer Andy Hayman, the Yard's anti-terrorism chief during the initial inquiry, was employed to write a column for The Times newspaper shortly after he resigned in 2007.

Several Met police chiefs, including Yates and Hayman, faced a parliamentary scrutiny panel last week, publicly grilled and forced to defend their actions. Committee chief Keith Vaz said he found Yates's evidence "unconvincing."

The affair comes as Britain faces widespread cutbacks in a bid to rein in its record deficit. The government is planning to cut its £11 billion funding for the police by 20 percent by 2014-15.

The Met also faces a huge challenge in a year's time, handling security for the 2012 Olympics, which are being planned with a substantial terror threat in mind.

Stephenson's tenure saw the Met criticised for its handling of the April 2009 G20 summit protests and the use of "kettling" to block in demonstrators. One passer-by collapsed and died after a confrontation with an officer.

Stephenson's predecessor Ian Blair resigned in December 2008 after nearly four years in charge, saying he did not have the backing of new London Mayor Boris Johnson.

He presided over the response to the London bombings, which included the shooting dead of Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes, a victim of mistaken identity.

© 2011 AFP

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