Police operation code names are randomly generated by computer.
The computer programme, synced across all UK forces, throws out a name based on an A-Z list so that no two ongoing operations in the country have the same code name at the same time.
For some reason the list favours the classics, like it was propagated by Inspector Morse.
You would think, with such attention to detail, that our police service thinks of everything.
It does not.
Operation Merlin, as the computer labelled it, was one of the most expensive investigations in the history of Strathclyde Police. It was a probe into the police corruption Paul McMullan spoke about at the Leveson Inquiry and targeted journalists who allegedly paid serving police officers for stories. It achieved nothing, apart from the promotion of several officers involved in it, and cost over £1 million.
The only police officer taken to court at the end of this mammoth probe walked free after two days of Crown evidence with a no case to answer. The reason? There was no evidence. Yesterday, he wrote to Leveson to offer his experience to the Inquiry. It is quite a story.
He was targeted while newspaper executives who signed cheques, not to the officer in question, struck deals behind the scenes. Evidence was withheld and senior newspaper industry executives colluded with senior police officers to avoid adverse publicity for the particular news group in question.
The journalist involved in this inquiry has recently been doorstepped by officers of the Counter Corruption Unit of Strathclyde Police, the new name for the Professional Standards Unit. They were apparently investigating a complaint by the now retired police officer into allegations of collusion and corruption… by their own unit. They were given short change. A police force allowed to investigate its own officers and units is a police force open to accusation.
Here’s why Operation Merlin failed: intelligence…they “sexed up” the dossier. Every police force has what’s called a Professional Standards Unit nowadays. It’s a concept that started in the Met in the 90′s. At that time the Met was so riven with corruption they established a secret unit to deal with it.
That model was rolled out across all UK forces. An integral part of that model was tackling press liaison. Controlling the message. A couple of Guardian writers risked their careers to write this excellent take on the whole affair and the genesis of the Professional Standards Units across the UK forces:
To cut a long and interesting story short, the Met established a “ghost squad” of officers who kept tabs on their colleagues. It worked. Dozens of corrupt cops were exposed, prosecuted and drummed out of the force. Such was the success it became a blueprint. Cops love blueprints.
Part of that blueprint was to identify, target and eliminate any un-sanctioned dealings with the press. Strathclyde, among other forces in Scotland, stuck to the blueprint. Between 2002 and 2007 they conducted an operation called Merlin. On a whiteboard in a room at Pitt St HQ, the same room the Lockerbie Inquiry had been managed from, were the coded images for a number of individuals.
They didn’t have names, they had tags. Two officers targeted were identified on the board by their ranks, the insignia of a sergeant and that of a constable. Journalists were portrayed on the board by the masthead of their newspaper, and various other connections, like taxi drivers, were denoted by a black cab orange hailing light. This was the Professional Standards Unit (PSU) hothouse, and it was kept under lock and key.
The end result of this was five men being turned out of their beds at 7am during a concerted, coordinated series of raids organised by the PSU. Two serving police officers, two taxi drivers and a civilian. The white board and all its symbols had thrown up the answers, or so they thought.
Years of intelligence gathering had led them to the raids. Their inquiry had lasted four years. It took a further two years to take it court. One serving constable appeared at court and after two days of crown evidence walked free when the judge ruled he had no case to answer.
One of the journalists targeted had his home swept for bugs twice. His office and all communication devices were also checked. He was placed under surveillance for months by the Central Surveillance Unit of Strathclyde Police. Detailed logs noted who he met, spoke to, and where he went. His telephone conversations were monitored, and still are.
It led to a furious bust up between the PSU and the CSU, or Central Surveillance Unit, who eventually refused to follow a journalist around town when their resources could be better used. Drug dealers were making money and they were otherwise engaged.
The journalist in question was pulled in by his bosses at the time and sent to meet the company lawyer. That lawyer tried to force the reporter into signing a sworn statement that would have ensured his sources would have gone to jail. He refused. Back channel chats were in play. The journalist was told he would be given a £5000 fine which the company would pay and be convicted of a Data Protection breach. The sources, serving police officers, would be going to jail.
The newspaper offices were raided at this time and paperwork related to payments were confiscated by police. They took with them logs of payments made to a civilian with links to serving police officers. But their intelligence was deeply flawed. They had acquired surveillance warrants on the journalist, signed by then First Minister Jack McConnell, on the basis of capital crime allegations. They had “sexed up” the dossier, and one journalist in particular found himself accused in intelligence files of running brothels and hookers, being an active member of the IRA and having firm knowledge of a series of murders. He also, apparently, had timeshare villas in Asia, bought from the proceeds of crime, that had been wiped out in the Tsunami.
None of this was true. A registered informant had provided the information. Registered informants are what police officers use to obtain surveillance orders. Most of the time they are genuine. Sometimes they are not. When police officers need to sex up a request for surveillance, a registered informant, a trusty, comes into play. The shockingly poor intelligence gathered in Merlin led to the dire outcome of the four-year long probe: one constable brought to court and released on a no case to answer after two days of Crown evidence.
But it raises questions in the wake of the NotW scandal, and as the Leveson Inquiry rumbles on.
Media groups routinely paying cops for information. Strathclyde Police, along with Lothian & Borders and various other forces, know this. There is a “scoping exercise” ongoing at the moment, led by Strathclyde Police, into the allegations surfacing south of the border. There is also talk of senior executives at papers north of the border being interviewed by police. Executives, I know, have been burning out shredders. In the wake of Paul McMullan’s evidence, they are awaiting the knock on the door. Whether it will ever come is another question, so deeply intertwined are our news groups and police forces.
It is a little known fact that one of the most senior officers in the Merlin inquiry was also one of the biggest culprits. He even alerted journalists to the fact that the inquiry was underway. That is the scale of it. That same officer accepted free drinks and race meeting tickets in the pub, surrounded by journalists.
The PSU at Strathclyde Police selected a journalist from the Scottish media who regularly gave them a bloody nose in the press and directed hundreds of thousands of pounds of resources into surveillance and evidence gathering. That was what the blueprint said they should do, and they stuck to it. But no newspaper executives had sleepless nights over it.
There was never any suggestion that an editor, whose signature was on the cheques, might be the focus of a police probe. Or a chief executive. That had been squared away, after the editor in question gave a statement to the cops and allowed them into the building to gather evidence of payments, without a warrant. Again, the back channel chats came into play. It was police corruption, but not one executive was interviewed under caution. The same rules seem to apply in London, if McMullan is to be believed. I have no reason to doubt him. His evident fragile state at the hearing belies the fact that he wrote 300 stories for the News of the World and never lost a single court case.
There is a link in Scotland between the police, a leading law firm I cannot name in this piece and newspaper editors. It is an unhealthy “back channel” arrangement that does nothing for journalism and everything for those involved in it. I shall write more of it later, with examples of its influence, but suffice to say it controls, moderates and stymies proper journalism in this country. The same is evidently true south of the border.
Newspapers paid, and pay, police officers for information. The one and only prosecution for this, Operation Merlin, ended in farce. The acquitted officer walked through Glasgow Sheriff Court after the case against him collapsed wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words: “No Case To Answer - The Fiscal’s A Chancer.”
He got that slightly wrong. It was the newly promoted officers behind Operation Merlin, reported to be the most expensive operation in the history of Strathclyde Police, who were the chancers.