UK

April Casburn: Trial opens lid on Met hacking probe

April Casburn leaving Southwark Crown Court on 7 January 2013

One of the Metropolitan Police's most senior female detectives has been found guilty of offering to sell inside information to the News of the World.

Det Ch Insp April Casburn told the jury she had acted in the public interest when she contacted the now-defunct newspaper in 2010 and had never sought to undermine the phone-hacking investigation into some of its former journalists.

The trial has raised questions about the culture she says she experienced within counter-terrorism command at the Met and about the pressure the force was under to re-investigate phone hacking.

However, the jury was not asked to consider if Casburn was a victim of a poor workplace culture but whether or not she was guilty of misconduct in a public office - a complex offence designed to catch corrupt public officials.

In his summing up, Mr Justice Fulford told the Southwark Crown Court jury that to find Casburn guilty, they had to be sure the phone call to the former Sunday tabloid had been an abuse of the public trust placed in the police.

Senior investigator

In September 2010, the Metropolitan Police reopened its investigations into phone hacking.

It was prompted into action by a lengthy investigation by the New York Times that suggested hacking had once been rife and the Met's original investigation had left stones unturned.

That decision ultimately led to Scotland Yard opening Operations Weeting and Elveden, which are still investigating both phone hacking by journalists and allegations of corrupt payments to public officials.

In September 2010, Casburn was the most senior female investigating officer in SO15, the Met's counter-terrorism unit.

Image caption The phone-hacking scandal led to the closure of the News of the World

She headed a team of 60 at the national terrorist financial investigation unit, charged with tracking down the assets of terrorism suspects. The team of specialist investigators would work not just for the Met but also assist MI5, MI6 and the government's eavesdropping agency, GCHQ.

Casburn had already had an unorthodox career, by the standards of the average police officer.

The 53-year-old was brought up in Singapore and other places in East Asia, before her family returned to live in Southampton.

She spent four years in the Army after leaving school at 17. During her first marriage, she and her husband had two sons - now in their 20s - and they ran a pub in Hampshire. After they divorced, she went to university to study social work so she could join the police as a child protection officer.

She later switched to investigating fraud and became a counter-terrorism finance detective in 2009.

'Public interest'

In 2010, as pressure mounted on Scotland Yard, Assistant Commissioner John Yates asked counter-terrorism detectives to join the hunt for some of the sources of the New York Times article.

Casburn said she first heard of this decision in a meeting on Friday 10 September - four days after the Met had decided to launch its inquiry. And it was early the next day that she called the News of the World.

The question for the jury to consider was "Why did she pick up the phone?".

Mark Bryant-Heron, prosecuting, told the court that Casburn had "sought to undermine a highly sensitive and high-profile investigation at the point of its launch" - and that her actions were tantamount to going to the suspect of an unfolding criminal investigation.

The prosecution case hinged on the account of Tim Wood, the journalist who took Casburn's call.

He emailed colleagues to say the officer had offered to sell inside information on phone hacking. His email said she had complained about political pressure on the Met from Lord Prescott and that "counter-terrorism assets" - meaning officers - had been assigned to the hacking inquiry.

But Casburn vehemently rejected that account. In the witness box, she recalled the eight-minute conversation with Mr Wood.

She said she had not been offering inside information but speaking out in the public interest. The jury heard that some of her male colleagues considered hacking to be a "jolly", a bit of fun. There were jokes about who would go on foreign trips or interview the actress Sienna Miller, a victim of phone hacking.

In contrast, her team were stretched and she was worried about the next day's anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

She was angry about resources being taken away from counter-terrorism, but felt she had nowhere to turn other than the press. She described the behaviour of some of her male colleagues in SO15 as similar to "Life on Mars in the 21st Century", referring to the BBC comedy-drama about male-dominated policing in the 1970s.

At times she did not have her own desk, the jury heard, even though lower-ranked male officers did.

Image caption DCI Casburn told the jury she had had no inside information to provide

The prosecution attacked her account of her call to the NoW, saying the only reason to contact the newspaper at the centre of the phone-hacking storm was to profit by selling it useful inside information.

Casburn told the jury she neither needed nor wanted money and had no inside information to provide - but regarded the tabloid as being under completely different management to the hacking days.

Casburn was signed off on sick leave some months after the News of the World call - but before her arrest.

In a statement following her arrest, she told investigators she was suffering "situational stress", partly brought on by professional bullying. During 2010, she had also experienced a second, acrimonious divorce and failed IVF fertility treatment with her new partner.

In his summing up, Mr Justice Fulford told the jury that if they wanted to convict Casburn, they had to be sure that her phone call was criminally below the standards expected of a police officer.

But he added that there were circumstances in which a police officer could claim a legitimate defence of acting in the public interest - and it would be for the jury to decide whether Casburn's actions met that test.

The question we can't answer at the moment is exactly what implications this verdict has for the future of Operation Elveden - and wider questions about contact between journalists and reporters.

Five other serving or former police officers are under suspicion of alleged misconduct and payments.

Meanwhile, four former News of the World journalists and civil servant face trial. Overall, 48 people have been arrested and bailed under Elveden. Charging decisions will have to be made in those cases.

Irrespective of the April Casburn case, Elizabeth Filkin, the former parliamentary commissioner for standards who also looked into relations between the Met and the press, said the force must do more to ensure whistleblowers can voice their concerns internally.

"If staff trust their managers, even if they don't get on with them, those staff will brings things to their attention," she said.

"If that [trust] doesn't exist they won't - and there may be other situations where it is absolutely legitimate that the member of staff has gone through all the channels, done it properly, tried desperately to raise an issue and goes to the press because they feel they have no other option. But in those instances they may well have to resign."

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