Former Met Commissioner speaks to Full Fact on whether press investigations are "disproportionate"

16 February 2012

Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun has been arguing that the police investigations of press misbehaviour are "wildly disproportionate."

In our factcheck we showed that he was wrong to call the investigation the largest "in the history of british policing" and that there were recent examples of even larger investigations.

It is fair to note that the police have previously been criticised by victims for not getting on with the investigation, as well as now by those being investigated for conducting it too vigorously.

Our factcheck struggled to find out whether the size of the current press investigation is 'unusual', making it hard to assess the thrust of what Mr Kavanagh said rather than just its details.

We recounted a long list of organisations that were unable to say whether 169 police officers and staff were an unusually large investigation team, from the police inspectorate to a specialist think tank.

Yesterday, Full Fact put that question to Lord Imbert, an independent crossbench Peer who was Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police between 1987 and 1993, and earlier Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police.

He explained that the 169 officers and staff involved in the trio of press investigations "is a large-scale investigation." From his own experience, the only time he could recollect measuring that number of officers was when he was number two in the anti-terrorist squad.

Nevertheless, he gave his opinion that even without lives being at stake:

"I wouldn't think it was disproportionate with an Inquiry like this, a public inquiry chaired by someone like Lord Justice Leveson. With the seriousness of the allegations, I would have thought it was about right. The sooner we get to the bottom of this, I would have thought that the better it would be."

He concluded: "Frankly if I had been in charge I might have put a few more on it to speed it up a bit."

Again this comes down to differing views on the seriousness of the offences of phone hacking, corruption and other hacking that the police are investigating in the trio of operations.

Mr Kavanagh's position on Monday was that it was not suggested that anybody had committed any "hideous offences." On the other hand, at the time that word of the alleged hacking of Milly Dowler's phone came out, even the Chief Executive of News International, and the relevant editor of the News of the World said she was left "sickened" by the claims.

But Lord Imbert's point that the number of officers determines the speed of investigation seems important: fewer officers does not mean there is any less to investigate. With 5,795 or more potential victims, 11,000 pages of notebooks, and a "vast" and "enormous" quantity of email data including "a database of 300,000,000 emails" the police have a daunting task

An investigation that proceeds quickly and concludes quickly may, as Lord Imbert suggested, arguably be the best thing for all involved, whether or not you consider the investigation essential or excessive.

How much effort should go into these investigations will always be a matter of opinion and judgement, open to criticism from either side. Many thanks to Lord Imbert for sharing his experience.

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