Senior Met PR 'surprised' by Neil Wallis appointment - Press Gazette

Senior Met PR 'surprised' by Neil Wallis appointment

A senior Scotland Yard press officer was not told the force had hired an ex-News of the World executive until the phone-hacking scandal erupted last summer, the Leveson Inquiry heard today.

The Metropolitan Police paid Neil Wallis, the Sunday tabloid’s former executive editor, £24,000 for communications advice between October 2009 and September 2010.

Sara Cheesley, Scotland Yard’s senior information officer for specialist operations, including counter-terrorism, said she was surprised that she learned about Mr Wallis’s contract only last July.

She told the press standards inquiry she knew nothing about the former News of the World executive’s involvement during the year he was working for the Met.

Asked about her reaction to finding out about Wallis’s employment so late, she said: “I was a bit surprised, yes.

“Clearly, at the time the Met was under a lot of scrutiny and the spotlight, and I suppose it was the perception other people might have around his recruitment.”

Inquiry chairman Lord Justice Leveson said: “I am just surprised that you didn’t know anything about him at all.”

Cheesley replied: “Well, I had the chief press officer, who is my direct line manager.”

Scotland Yard detectives arrested Mr Wallis on suspicion of phone-hacking on July 14 last year. He was bailed and has not been charged.

Dick Fedorcio let NoW crime editor use computer

Meanwhile, the inquiry also heard that Scotland Yard’s communications chief let a News of the World journalist use his computer to file a story about a controversial senior policeman, the Leveson Inquiry has heard.

The paper’s crime editor Lucy Panton wrote and emailed an article about former Metropolitan Police commander Ali Dizaei, who was jailed for corruption in 2010, from the office of Dick Fedorcio.

Fedorcio, the Met’s head of public affairs, told the press standards inquiry he was nearby while Panton was using his computer and she did not have access to any of his files or documents.

He said in a written statement: “To help her, and as she was under pressure, I offered to let her type the story, which she did from notes that she arrived with, in an email on the standalone computer in my office.

“She accepted and wrote the story and sent it. I was present in the office throughout this time, and therefore got advance sight of a story about an MPS (Metropolitan Police Service) officer.”

Fedorcio has been on extended leave from Scotland Yard since August pending an investigation into the awarding of a contract to Neil Wallis, former executive editor of the News of the World.

Wallis, who was arrested on suspicion of phone-hacking last July, was paid £24,000 by the Met for communications advice between October 2009 and September 2010.

‘Lack of trust’

Fedorcio and Scotland Yard commissioners met News of the World editors or deputy editors, usually over lunch or dinner, once or twice a year until 2009, the inquiry heard.

In 2004, 2005 and 2006 the police communications chief had more meetings with individual journalists from the Sunday tabloid than with those of any other paper.

He said he spoke to Panton or her predecessor, Peter Rose, most weeks about the stories they were planning for the coming weekend’s edition, and sometimes met them on Friday afternoons.

Fedorcio said in his statement: “The News of the World was one of the most challenging media outlets to deal with because of the nature and content of their coverage, propensity for sting operations and their reluctance to approach the MPS with questions or requests for operational support until the last minute on a Saturday.

“This was fuelled by a lack of trust and the fear that their exclusive story would be undermined by premature police intervention or leaked to another media outlet.”

For example, the paper only informed Scotland Yard at about 3.30pm on the Saturday before it published a story in November 2002 alleging that there was a plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham.

Fedorcio told the inquiry he tried to gain the News of the World’s confidence so it would contact the force much earlier before publication, giving it more time to prepare a response.

This strategy proved successful when editor Colin Myler approached him on a Friday evening in August 2010 to alert him to the paper’s upcoming expose of cricket match-fixing by Pakistan players.

“(This) gave us far more reasonable notice to put an effective policing plan in place the following day which ultimately led to successful prosecutions,” he said.

In December 2003 then-News of the world editor Andy Coulson sent a Christmas hamper to Scotland Yard’s directorate of public affairs (DPA), the inquiry heard.

Fedorcio said in his statement: “I believe this was given as a thank you for the DPA’s efforts in dealing with the paper’s demands, often at short notice on Saturday afternoons.”

Panton, who is married to a Scotland Yard detective, was arrested in December on suspicion of making corrupt payments to police officers. She was later bailed and has not been charged.

Fedorcio and Wallis

Wallis offered the Metropolitan Police his services as a PR consultant over lunch with Fedorcio in August 2009, the inquiry heard.

The Scotland Yard communications chief attended Wallis’s leaving party from the News of the World in July 2009 and they arranged to meet again the following month.

“At this lunch Neil Wallis told me of his new line of work as a media consultant and offered his services to me and the MPS,” Fedorcio said.

Fedorcio, who at the time was shouldering the burden of extra work because his deputy was on long-term sick leave, discussed the possibility of hiring Wallis with the then commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson and assistant commissioner John Yates.

He noted in his statement: “John Yates had… inherited responsibility for the phone hacking investigation. Therefore, I felt that he was well placed to advise me on any potential risks to the organisation if Neil Wallis was engaged by the MPS in view of the News of the World involvement in the phone hacking case.”

Fedorcio came to the view that Wallis “fully met” his requirements, the Metropolitan Police knew nothing to his detriment and there was no indication he was suspected of involvement in criminality.

He added: “In addition John Yates told me that he had spoken to Neil Wallis on August 31 2009 to ask if there was anything that was going to emerge at any point about phone-hacking that could ’embarrass the MPS, me, him or the Commissioner’.

“John Yates had received ‘categorical assurances that this was the case’, as recorded in his day book at the time. As John Yates had obtained and recorded this assurance I felt there was no need for me to repeat the question.

“No other officers gave any information or assurances about Neil Wallis’ suitability to work for the MPS.”

Fedorcio said he first became aware Mr Wallis was of interest to Scotland Yard over phone hacking on the day of his arrest on July 14 last year.

Yates has told the inquiry he was “good friends” with Wallis, and attended football matches and dined out with him.

Brooks horse loan could lead to ‘positive coverage’

Fedorcio felt that loaning a retired police horse to former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks might result in positive media coverage for the Met, the inquiry heard.

Brooks, who was at that time editor of The Sun, rang him in September 2007 to say she was interested in offering a home to one of the force’s horses.

The communications chief arranged for Brooks, whose maiden name is Wade, to visit Scotland Yard’s stables.

He said in his statement: “I felt this could possibly lead to some positive coverage about the care of retired police horses. Accordingly, I spoke to the then-commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, to make him aware (of) Ms Wade’s approach and of the action taken.”

Brooks visited the stables on September 19 2007, and met Fedorcio and the commissioner for lunch later that day. In the end the ex-News International chief executive looked after a retired Met horse called Raisa from 2008 until 2010.

The hearing was told that Fedorcio’s son Alex did work experience at The Sun while at school in 2003 or 2004 and again after university in 2007. Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, suggested that Brooks’ initial call to Fedorcio about being loaned a police horse came at about the time that his son did his second internship at the paper.

He asked: “Was it the question – put bluntly – of favours being called in here?” Fedorcio replied: “I don’t believe it was at all, not as far as I was concerned. The arrangement at that stage in 2007, I was not involved in. That was a matter between my son and The Sun direct.”

Jay went on: “Aside from the horse, do you feel Rebekah Wade was trying to get something out of you?” Fedorcio said: “No.”

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