This is a post that first appeared on an earlier incarnation of the Boggler Blog on 18 July 2011.

The punches keep coming in the phone hacking scandal: first the News of the World, then News International, now the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. I wouldn’t have been surprised to wake up this morning to find a few ex-Number 10 people preparing their CVs, the Director-General of the BBC gone, and the leader of Torquay Council feeling nervous. Just kidding about Torquay, but you never know.

However, a crucial issue is being overlooked, one that goes to the heart of integrity in governance. First, News CEO Rebekah Brooks tried to hold onto her position by claiming that she could not be expected to know the details of what her underlings were doing; and second, the Commissioner denied any connection between his force’s actions and what he claims to be a tenuous relationship with Neil Wallis, ex-cop, ex-NoW PR and PR to the Met.

Both of these claims might be true, and yet both massively miss the point of the wrong-doing. In Ms Brook’s case, her detailed knowledge is neither here nor there. She was the Editor, and then the Chief Executive. Part of her job was to set the culture, set expectations, ensure that everyone understands those expectations and act swiftly when they were not met. She, her predecessors and her successors, appear to have set expectations that can be summed up as “by any means necessary”.

Given that, investigations need to focus on the culture of the organizations she and others ran. If they get bogged down in detail over who knew what and when, they will miss that bigger point, and offer those under investigation ways of wriggling off the hook.

Similarly with ex-Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson. The precise details of what he did or did not do with Neil Wallis are barely relevant. The precise details of relationships between the Champney’s health spa, the News of the World and the Met are problematic, but again, not the big issue. The big issue is that he accepted – and he does not deny this – freebies from a company, allegedly worth £12,000.

It is a fundamental principle of police ethics that officers do not accept gifts, not even cups of tea. The reason is simple: it potentially corrupts relationships, not just because one looks the other way, but because there is a risk that one treats more favourably, or more quickly, or more thoroughly, those people and organizations with whom one has a matey relationship and is less thorough, quick or favourable to others. In the Met’s own Code of Conduct, the requirement is that officers should “avoid being improperly beholden to any person or institution,” and gifts and favours create not just the appearance of being beholden, but the fact.

I was interviewed as a witness a few years ago by a couple of detectives from the Met. They were with me for nearly two hours, and in all that time they politely but firmly refused offers of a cuppa or a biscuit. And they were right to do so. It is a pity that the Commissioner failed to act with as much integrity as a couple of junior detectives, and his claims in his statement that his integrity is completely intact simply demonstrate that he does not understand these requirements.

Both Brooks and Stephenson set standards, by their actions and inactions. Investigations need to examine that standard-setting. Investigations that fail to do so, and focus on “he said, she said” claims, will miss that big picture, and let those who failed off the hook.

For some good reading on police ethics, google Richey Lashley; on ethics and governance more generally, check out the work of John Uhr.

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