By RAPHAEL SATTER, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — One of Scotland Yard's former top-ranking officers struggled Thursday to explain his close ties to people who later became suspects in the British phone-hacking saga, denying any suggestion that he refused to reinvestigate the scandal to protect his drinking buddies.
But former Assistant Commissioner John Yates had trouble explaining the nature of his convivial relationship with senior News of the World journalists Neil Wallis and Lucy Panton — both of whom have since been arrested.
Speaking via video link, Yates told a judge-led inquiry into the scandal that he was close to Wallis, saying the two traveled to soccer games together and regularly met for dinner or drinks at fancy restaurants. Still, he said that did not affect his judgment.
"I absolutely know — and guarantee — that none of that played any part in my decision-making," he said. "My conscience is absolutely clear on that."
Yates played a key role in the widening phone-hacking scandal when he knocked down a 2009 story published in the Guardian newspaper that suggested illegal behavior at the News of the World tabloid was more widespread than previously acknowledged. Yates took only six hours to veto any further investigation, saying there was no evidence to back the Guardian's claim.
"Time has shown that to be not the greatest call," Yates admitted.
Many would agree. The scandal Yates refused to investigate has since exploded, derailing the career of the prime minister's top media aide, causing media baron Rupert Murdoch to shut down Britain's top-selling Sunday tabloid and triggering the arrest, resignation or suspension of some 40 journalists, public officials and media executives.
Yates was forced to revisit his relationship with Wallis by inquiry lawyer Robert Jay, who ran through a list of meetings the police commander had with Wallis at places such as The Ivy restaurant, where bottles of champagne don't come much cheaper than 60 pounds ($100), or the exclusive Mandarin Hotel, where the Chinese premier stayed when he visited London.
Yates insisted — repeatedly — the dinners were of a personal nature and the two men didn't talk about his police work, or at least not in depth.
But he was thrown on the defensive when Jay read out an email addressed to Panton, formerly the News of the World's crime reporter, who Yates met several times a year.
The 2010 email, written by Panton's editor James Mellor, asks Panton if she's spoken to Yates about a high-profile terror case.
"Really need an exclusive splash line," the email read. "Time to call in all those bottles of champagne."
Was Yates being plied with champagne in exchange for news tips?
"That didn't happen," Yates insisted.
No champagne? he was asked.
"There may well have been the very odd occasion, where a bottle was shared with several people," Yates said via videolink from Bahrain, where he's now helping to advise the authoritarian Gulf state's police force.
His testimony didn't impress hacking victims.
Former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, whose phone messages were intercepted by the News of the World, tweeted that Yates "spent 6 hours reviewing phone hacking & missed EVERYTHING." He added the words: "Good luck Bahrain."
Scotland Yard has been widely criticized for its failure to get to grips with the hacking scandal, with suggestions that overlapping ties between British police and journalists helped keep the wrongdoing at the News of the World — and its sister-paper, The Sun — under wraps.
Earlier Thursday, former Scotland Yard counterterrorism chief Peter Clarke explained that one of the reasons police couldn't devote much time to the original investigation was because of the 2005 London transit bombings. He said the London force was so undermanned it had to enlist 1,000 officers from other departments. In that context, the investigation into phone hacking had to take the back seat, he said.
"Invasions of privacy are odious, and sometimes illegal, but to put it bluntly they don't kill you," Clarke said. "Terrorists do."
In a separate development, police said Thursday they have arrested a 32-year-old woman as part of their investigation into media misdeeds. News International's corporate affairs office said it had no immediate information on the arrest, but a person briefed on the investigation identified the woman as Virginia Wheeler, The Sun newspaper's defense correspondent.