John Alexander Symonds
“I'd say: ‘join the KGB and see the world’ - first class. I went to all over the world on these jobs and I had a marvellous time. I stayed in the best hotels, I visited all the best beaches, I've had access to beautiful women, unlimited food, champagne, caviar whatever you like and I had a wonderful time. That was my KGB experience. I don't regret a minute of it ...”
The Fall of Scotland Yard Part 1
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The Fall of Scotland Yard
by Barry Cox, John Shirley, Martin Short
Penguin Books 1977
The Times Inquiry
‘Like catching the Archbishop of Canterbury in bed with a prostitute,’ observed a leading criminal lawyer on breakfasting with The Times on Saturday, 29 November 1969. Regular readers of this prestigious newspaper could have been excused for thinking that it had been taken over by a team from the Sunday People or the News of the World, or that they were looking at the wrong paper on the wrong day. Few could believe that The Times had sunk to such depths - or risen to such heights - of reporting, for sharing the front page with speculation about a 4½ per cent limit on wage increases and a picture of some astronaut's footprints on the Moon was a robust piece of investigative journalism, written with nerve, irreverence and initiative, qualities more characteristic of the other end of the newspaper market. It was headed: ‘London policemen in bribe allegations. Tapes reveal planted evidence.’
The story, by Garry Lloyd and Julian Mounter, went on to detail a series of meetings between a small-time professional criminal and three seasoned detectives. The account is its own best historian:
‘Disturbing evidence of bribery and corruption among certain London detectives was handed by The Times to Scotland Yard last night. We have, we believe, proved that at least three detectives are taking large sums of money in exchange for dropping charges, for being lenient with evidence offered in court, and for allowing a criminal to work unhindered.
Our investigations into the activities of these three men convince us that their cases are not isolated. We cannot prove that other officers are guilty but we believe that there is enough suspicion to justify a full inquiry.
The possible scope of corruption is disclosed by the admission of a detective sergeant who has taken £150. The total haul of this detective, Sgt John Symonds of Camberwell, and two others, Detective Inspector Bernard Robson of Scotland Yard’s C9 Division, and Detective Sergeant Gordon Harris, a regional crime squad officer on detachment from Brighton to Scotland Yard, was more than £400 in the past month from one man alone.’
The story explained that Robson had tricked one ‘Michael Smith’ (the pseudonym used throughout the article) into leaving his fingerprints on a piece of gelignite, in order to blackmail him into divulging the name of a receiver. When Smith hesitated to do this Robson appeared to be only too willing to take £200 instead, through Detective Sergeant Harris as his negotiator. Harris and Robson also suggested to Smith that he ‘plant stolen cigarettes in a sweet shop belonging to one of his enemies.’ The officers ‘would then raid the shop and either obtain money from the receiver (sharing it with Mr Smith) or prosecute the man’. He did not have to be a genuine receiver of stolen goods, as far as Robson was concerned, for the detective was quoted as having said, ‘Then we’ll go in and if it’s a good load he’s taken, then he can bloody well pay up and we’ll give you fair shares ...’
Smith soon found the Yard men’s greed insatiable. A fortnight after they had taken the £200,
‘Inspector Robson was feeling the need for further funds. He summoned Mr Smith to a clandestine meeting in the Army and Navy Stores at Victoria, a stone’s throw from Scotland Yard. Pacing past sales counters and riding up and down escalators the inspector, Smith said afterwards, told him of new plans to plant allegedly stolen property on him and two of his associates.
The inspector, Mr Smith declared, informed him that his department was mounting a weekend raid on Peckham SE, and medallions which they would claim had been stolen from a shop that had been entered near the Yard, would be ‘found’ in their possession.’
Robson then demanded £50 each from Smith and his two colleagues for this information.
There were further alarming aspects to the story, notably the implication that a number of other officers were up to the same thing. But what gave the account an authenticity and a seriousness which was later to compel the authorities to take it more seriously than other journalistic forays into this murky area was the nature of the evidence. For a month the Times reporters had not only watched and photographed meetings between the criminal and the detectives, they had also immortalized their incriminating conversations by means of concealed microphones and recorders. The Times tapes transformed fairly routine allegations-of police misconduct from a convicted criminal - the sort which are usually thrown out of court without a hearing - into apparently irrefutable charges whose authenticity was backed by acceptable witnesses: the two reporters, a sound recordist and a Times photographer.
The tapes had the additional advantage of spicing the story, as The Times itself observed, with the ‘cosy lingua franca of the crime business, littered with picturesque but unprintable adjectives. But they also gave the account its most sinister element. Detective Sergeant Symonds was taking money from Smith independently. He appeared to have nothing to do with the Yard men, but he seemed to know their kind. He advised caution in regard to Robson, whom he guessed might be intending to fit Smith up. ‘Because, what he is doing he might be trying to bleed you. He might think, you know, well I’m on to a good one here … Because we’ve got more villains in our game than you’ve got in yours, you know.’ ‘You’ve got to watch all this because otherwise you will be — skint all your life.’ Robson would either give Smith a tip-off and ‘con dough out of you’ or ‘he’s going to try and blag you for some money because Christmas is coming’.
Symonds’s own relationship with Smith was not quite so predatory as that of his Yard rivals. There was no blackmail involved, just payment for assistance rendered: £150 for getting Smith off a possible charge of theft. Indeed, his relationship with Smith was avuncular: a Camberwell Machiavelli advising his young Prince of Peckham on how he should go about a successful life of crime. They could go into partnership. While Smith was on a job Symonds would arrange distractions, false alarms, raids on other premises, to clear the streets of patrolling bobbies. ‘If it’s a big one I’ll come with you … you can’t have any better insurance than that, can you?’ If anything went wrong they should have a ‘mug’on hand to arrest instead, ‘then I’m a hero aren’t I? I get a - medal, or something.’
Symonds gave Smith advice on investment too. He should put his profits into a little sweet shop with a bird running it. ‘Then if a wheel comes off [something goes wrong], so what? You’ve got a home and a — business ...’
Symonds’s most important piece of advice was that Smith should keep in touch with him so that he could arrange to look after any case in which Smith was involved: ‘... don’t forget always to let me know straight away if you need anything because I know people everywhere. Because I’m in a little firm in a firm. Don’t matter where, anywhere in London I can get on the phone to someone I know I can trust, that talks the same as me. And if he’s not the right person that can do it, he’ll know the person that can. All right?’ Through Symonds Smith could gain access to a time-honoured system: ‘That’s the thing, and it can work - well it’s worked for years, hasn’t it?’
In another taped conversation Symonds gave Smith a related warning about the honesty of policemen outside the Metropolitan force. ‘If you are nicked anywhere in London ... I can get on the blower to someone in my firm who will know someone somewhere who can get something done. But out in the sticks they are all country coppers aren’t they? All old — swedes and that.’ To Symonds, it seems, ‘country coppers’ were either naive or stupid, and their incorruptibility proved one or the other.
‘A little firm in a firm’ was taken as the headline for the Times first leader that morning. Though Symonds may have been exaggerating, his remarks were what gave the story its massive dimensions. Without them the newspaper had published a very sound report of serious police corruption. There appeared to be proof that three detectives were prepared to plant evidence, commit perjury to obtain a false conviction, take money in return for showing favours and urge a criminal to act as an agent provocateur. As the Times leader stated, these allegations constituted ‘the most serious charge that has been brought against the Criminal Investigation Branch of the Metropolitan Police for some years’. But it was the ‘firm in a firm’ conversations which gave the account its horrific stature. They implied that there may have been a whole seam of ‘bent’ coppers on the take, who were prepared to do just these sorts of favours to anyone who could be induced to pay for them. With typical but on this occasion justified Times solemnity, the leader ended, ‘it is important in justice to the Metropolitan Police, and in particular to the plain-clothes branch, that the most stringent inquiry should now be made.’
The inquiry demanded by The Times would indeed be carried out.But the way it was to be handled, the time it would take and its ultimate consequences were to be such that no one genuinely concerned with discovering the truth of the newspaper’s allegations can, even today, be remotely satisfied. Far from being ‘most stringent’, the Metropolitan Police inquiry into the Times allegations was effectively a cover-up job. It was handled in the main by an undistinguished and deeply suspect detective chief superintendent who, in 1977, was himself to face corruption charges at the Old Bailey of a scale which towered over the petty achievements of Robson, Harris and Symonds. Even as he probed the ‘firm in a firm’, that investigator, Detective Chief Superintendent Bill Moody, was corruptly taking vast sums of money in his other capacity as head of the Obscene Publications Squad. How he was able to do this and yet still be esteemed impeccable enough by his superiors to take on an inquiry of this magnitude remains today a matter of mystery and deep concern.
On 3 March 1972 Robson and Harris were sent to prison for seven and six years respectively. However, the loose-tongued braggart Symonds had disappeared only a few days before that verdict, just six weeks before his own, separate trial. He has never been seen in England since. Of another two officers described but not named in the Times article, neither was prosecuted but one was demoted. They were to remain in the Metropolitan Police, though one has since resigned. Of the dozens of officers investigated as a result of the Times allegations only Robson and Harris went to prison.
Yet, even in 1972 - long before the truth about Bill Moody came out in public - it was surprising that there were so few prosecutions arising out of the Times allegations, especially to the many senior provincial police officers who were convinced that Symonds’s boast of a network of corrupt Metropolitan detectives was true. But such ‘outsiders’ were already aware that the police inquiry had been handled, deliberately or through negligence, in such a way that the cork appeared to have been thrust firmly back into the bottle. To the public it might have seemed that Scotland Yard had sternly and without favour cleaned up its own dirt, and also that there was not much dirt about. But behind the simplicity of some newspaper allegations in 1969 and their confirmation at the Old Bailey some two and a half years later is a story of bitterness, incompetence and undeclared war between men whose unanimity, cohesiveness and mutual trust were essential, both for cleaning out corruption inside the Metropolitan Police and for an effective fight against crime throughout England and Wales. The Times report precipitated a series of bitter feuds, both inside Scotland Yard and between Yard chiefs and those provincial officers who were appointed to ‘advise’ on the inquiry’s conduct. At the Home Office, those civil servants with responsibility for the Metropolitan Police, who had known in general terms about the existence of a criminal element within the force for some years, at last felt able to take some public action. An influential section of the public had been made aware that there was corruption and that it might be widespread. It is no exaggeration to say that the way the Times revelations were treated by the Met clinched Robert Mark’s succession to the job of Commissioner. Many of his reforms were both made possible and shown to be essential because it had become clear that the will and capacity of the Met to investigate allegations of corruption made against itself were very limited indeed.
The Met had to be straightened out, in order to end the incapacitating mutual distrust of Scotland Yard detectives and their provincial counterparts, to establish an effective internal method of investigating corruption and to lay out a code of conduct for detectives in their relationships with criminals. The intimate bonds so often built up between London’s plainclothes men and the underworld had been shown to be so dovetailed with mutual obligations that it had become almost impossible for all but the most resilient of detectives to avoid being compromised. The role of the informant, also, so often degenerated into the illegal one of agent provocateur, the instigator of crime. And in some convoluted relationships the CID man brought greater benefit to himself as a supplier of information to criminals, to ease their own success and enable them to evade detection, than as someone for whom informants were to be cultivated only in order to solve and prevent crime. To that extent, Robson, Harris and Symonds were themselves the victims of a system which put massive temptation in their way as a matter of course. They did not resist it. How many of their colleagues were equally irresolute? The Times inquiry itself conspicuously failed to answer this question. But the way in which it was mishandled gives some indication that Sergeant Symonds spoke very near the truth on the Times tapes. ‘The firm in a firm’ was a big and thriving concern.
There had been no thought of police corruption, of tapes or trials, in the mind of the bright spark at The Times in 1968 who placed an advertisement - in another newspaper naturally - for a former burglar to help with a series of articles on how to protect houses from theft. Among the applicants was a certain Mr Eddie Brennnan, burglar (retd). As Garry Lloyd said at the trial of Robson and Harris, ‘The Times were contemplating renting a house for Brennan to break into to show how easy it was, to advise people how to protect their goods. We were concerned at the number of antiques being stolen’ (an affliction suffered, it seems, by many readers of The Times). ‘The object of the exercise was 'to stock the house with antiques. We would watch it burgled so that we could describe it in the series. We decided that it was much too ambitious, expensive and risky a project. ‘So then they decided to write an article merely with Mr Brennan’s advice. It was partly this totally fortuitous entry into the minefield of investigating corrupt policemen that was to give the Times reporters their indestructibly honourable air in court. For, far from seeking an anti-police story, they had it thrust into their hands one year after the burglary article, when Brennan got in touch with The Times to introduce a distressed young friend who was in need of advice. This was one Michael Roy Perry, a car dealer aged twenty-two, who was to become the Michael Smith of the original Times reports. Perry had a string of criminal convictions and was on the way to getting a couple more. On 27 October 1969 Perry went to The Times because he felt himself to be in danger not just of having to pay sums of money to bent detectives - this he seemed to accept as part of his professional dues - but of being sent down on framed evidence for an offence which was punishable with many years’ imprisonment. His alternative, an unattractive one bearing in mind the company he kept, was to turn informer on receivers of stolen goods. Perry was also concerned about being nibbled at more than one end, by some greedy Scotland Yard men at the same time as by his friendly neighbourhood sergeant.
Perry had first met Robson and Harris only a few days before, on 21 October, when they were among officers who were raiding the Peckham flat which he shared with Robert Laming. The detectives found twelve bottles of whisky and also some plasticine, sticking plaster, a battery and some wire. At this point Robson apparently said to Perry, ‘a bit of gelly would go nice with this and I know a man who can get some’. This remark seemed to indicate to Perry that Robson was prepared to fit him up with the one ingredient missing for a small safe-blowing kit. Perry laughed and pointed out that he had merely been dismantling a transistor radio, but Robson told him not to laugh as he was serious. Unless Robson was told the whereabouts of two men called Brooks and Kelly, he would get some gelignite and arrest Perry for possession.
Perry was already in enough trouble, for he was later charged with dishonestly handling the whisky, knowing it to be stolen. He was kept in custody and appeared the following day at Tower Bridge Magistrates Court, pleaded guilty and was fined £40. While he was in his cell, waiting to appear, Harris visited him and said, ‘we will get it over today but you will have to give the big bloke a drink’ - the ‘big bloke’ meaning Robson and ‘a drink’ meaning a bribe. Perry took the hint and promptly agreed to pay £25. In return, Harris did not mention, when he testified in court, that Perry already had a similar conviction. In fact Harris should not have mentioned it anyway, since it was a juvenile offence. Nevertheless, Perry believed that Harris had done him a favour. The same day Perry went straight to some friends, the Laming brothers James and Robert, borrowed the money and met Harris at The Edinburgh Castle in Nunhead Lane, Peckham - the faded inner London suburb in which most of these transactions were carried out. In an alley outside the pub Perry paid Harris the £25 and asked whether that was the end of it or whether they would still be on his back. Harris answered, ‘No, you’re in the clear. If you get into any trouble give me a ring’ - on his extension at Scotland Yard.
A few days later, on the 25 October, Perry was in a car with Robert Laming and a man called O’Keefe when they visited the home of James Laming. They arrived to find two car-loads of police officers, including Robson, waiting to talk to Robert Laming. With immediate presence of mind Laming leapt out of the car, ran straight through the house, jumped over the back wall and was away. Perry and O’Keefe stayed in the vehicle. Robson came up and said to Perry, ‘Let’s have a look at your hand.’ Perry held out his left hand, Robson put his arm through the car window and ‘pressed a sausage-shaped thing in grease-proof paper on my fingers with the words “there is the gelly I promised you”.’ Robson took back the substance and put it in his pocket. ‘Unless I gave him the name of the receiver he would put it into the Yard so they would find my fingerprints on it.’ Robson added ‘I do not like doing this but unless you give me the names of the receivers the gelly is going in.’ Perry asked to have the weekend to think it over and agreed to meet Robson in The Grove Tavern in Dulwich the following Monday.
By this time Perry was really scared. He decided to get in touch with a solicitor, but it was a Saturday afternoon and all solicitors’ offices were closed. Then he happened to meet his friend Eddie Brennan who suggested a meeting with The Times. He called his contact there and a memo about the conversation landed on Garry Lloyd’s desk. Lloyd decided that the tale was worth an hour or two’s effort. On the Monday he went to The Grove and observed Perry’s meeting with Robson, but he was unable to hear the conversation properly. Lloyd then took Perry back to The Times to make a statement, and it was at this point that the full dimension of the story became clear. Perry was not claiming that he was an isolated victim. Many petty criminals of South London had similar relationships with detectives, particularly Detective Sergeant Symonds and another more senior local detective. Lloyd was told that licences to commit crime, without fear of arrest, had become a regular feature of the Peckham and Camberwell area. The payment of bribes was accepted, more or less willingly, as part of the price of being a criminal, in much the same way as law-abiding citizens grudgingly pay their taxes. However, fitting up and blackmailing these small-timers was another matter, as Symonds had immediately recognized.
Perry’s statement convinced the Home News Editor, Colin Webb, that the allegations it contained had to be proved or disproved. There was no leaving it aside as the disgruntled imaginings of a convicted criminal, however implausible a witness he would appear if ever these matters were to be brought before a jury. Of course, Perry was highly implausible. His previous convictions stretched back to his childhood and included occasioning actual bodily harm, aiding an escape from a remand centre, loitering with intent, stealing a car radio and causing malicious damage to a police motor cycle. He was fresh from the whisky offence and he had yet another charge hanging over him, for stealing a van and its contents.
Garry Lloyd and Julian Mounter, who had joined the investigation just two days after it started, were extremely suspicious of Perry. If they were going to get deeply involved in testing his allegations, how could they be sure he would not renegue and simply drop the whole story? They decided to ‘put him through the hoop’, repeatedly cross-questioning him on his statement. But they soon appreciated that the only type of people who got mixed up in this sort of thing were, almost inevitably, convicted criminals whose words no jury ever wanted to believe. And words were all the evidence there was likely to be. ‘Bent’ policemen don’t give receipts. Perry for all his incriminated past was the cleanest of a bunch of petty criminals the reporters were to interview and they had the feeling he might be telling the truth.
Yet there would still have to be some neutral form of testimony to verify what Perry was alleging. The very nature of the transactions meant that no outsider could ever be present, only the donor and the recipient. No reporter, however intrepid, could reasonably expect to overhear such dealings, and, if he did, why should he be believed rather than a police officer? The Times therefore decided that an attempt should be made to record conversations between Perry and the detectives. A sound engineer, Ernest Hawkey, was added to the investigative team and also a staff photographer, Warren Harrison.
The first recording was made on 30 October at the Woolwich home of Perry’s mother. It lasted two to three minutes and consisted of a pre-arranged phone call to Sergeant Harris at Scotland Yard. During the call Perry offered to pay Harris another £25, to get off the gelignite charge, rather than name a receiver. There still had to be some negotiations, so they agreed to talk it over that evening at The Edinburgh in Peckham. For this encounter the Times team arranged two methods of recording: a sensitive microphone was fixed under the dashboard in Perry’s car and connected by a wire running under the car to a recorder in the boot. A second microphone was placed inside Perry’s shirt and was wired to a transmitter in his overcoat pocket, which was in turn tuned to a tape recorder in a van to be parked near by.
Perry drove to The Edinburgh and switched on the tape recorder. Harris climbed into Perry’s car and a first-rate recording resulted, but only from the dashboard mike. The radio mike was not successful, as the batteries ran down after four or five minutes. On the recording Perry and Harris discussed the amount of money needed to get Perry off the gelignite charge. A minimum of £100 was agreed and arrangements were made for a meeting with Robson the following day, 31 October.
This proved to be the first of three meetings about the gelignite, during which a total of £200 changed hands. Immediately before the first transaction the Times reporters searched Perry to check the amount of money he was carrying - £55 - and took down the numbers of the notes. But they were unable to record the conversation. Perry got out of his own car and into the detectives’ vehicle, which was parked out of range of the radio recorder. However, Harrison, the Times photographer, managed to take a few shots. While Perry was with the detectives they noticed the sound engineer and his assistant sitting in another car. Robson and Harris asked Perry if he knew who they were. Perry with astonishing presence of mind said he thought they were policemen, thus ending the detectives’ curiosity.(1) It was during this encounter, according to Perry, that Robson said it would cost him a ‘twoer’, meaning £200. Perry said he only had £50 on him, which he duly paid over. When Perry returned, the reporters searched him again and found only £5.
For the second payment on 3 November it was decided to apply more elaborate recording techniques. A mike was hidden on Perry, linked to a recorder in the boot of his car. Perry was also wired up with a portable cassette recorder, strapped on his back. On this occasion Perry had £75, and again the numbers were noted. Perry drove to the rendezvous, The Grove in East Dulwich, and switched on the tape recorder in the boot. But again the attempt failed. The entire recording consisted of ‘Good morning. No aggravation?’ from Harris, ‘not really’ from Perry, six minutes of silence and then ‘see you later’. During that silence Perry had got into the detectives’ car, a sturdily built Volvo with too thick a body for the radio link to penetrate. As for the cassette, Perry could not start it. However, he did manage to pay over the £75, which he was told to push down the back seat. Perry later claimed that they had talked of ‘setting up’ a receiver, and that they discussed the possibility of using the tobacconist under Perry’s flat, a man called Skipton, who was also Perry’s landlord. Robson suggested that Perry should take some stolen cigarettes into the shop, which the police would then raid. Skipton would either pay up or be prosecuted. On Perry’s return the reporters found no money on him.
The next meeting was arranged for 5 November, again in the car park of The Grove Tavern. Perry was to pass a further £75 to complete payment of his gelignite debt. The disastrous experience of the Times team now drove them to using four recorders, turning Perry into a portable transmitting station. This time three recorders worked and most of the subsequent conversation was recorded on one or more of the machines. Again, the meeting was photographed by Harrison.
On these recordings it is quite clear what was going on. ‘I don’t — play games. When I stuck that in your hand that’s there for keeps ... I was going to stitch you.’ Referring to one of the earlier meetings Robson made it clear that he was ready to commit perjury: ‘I told you in the car that with that gelly I would stand there, and believe you me you could say what you liked and it would make no -- difference so don’t think you’ve wasted your money. You’ve got off well because you haven’t put up a buyer, which is what I really wanted.’ Perry had for the time being at least fulfilled his obligations. ‘Now you’ve paid your £200 we’re quits.’ He had his anxieties about the future, but was reassured by Robson: ‘What do you think we are, professional blackmailers?’
Again, the issue of planting the tobacconist was brought up by Robson. He was anxious to further his investigations into the activities of a skeleton key gang and needed to produce a receiver. But Robson seemed uninterested in whether that ‘receiver’ was guilty or innocent. He encouraged Perry to sacrifice anyone who might be bothering him. ‘If there’s anybody that’s ever done you a mischief ... that wants seeing to, you see what I mean? ...’ Perry suggested somebody, but he wasn’t sure whether that person was still working. Robson was undismayed: ‘Oh, we’ll do him again.’ The victim, whoever he was, would either pay up - and Perry would share the profits with the detectives - or he would be prosecuted.
But Robson was not as good as his word. His assurance to Perry that the gelignite affair was now closed was overtaken two weeks later when Perry received a message that Robson wanted to speak to him. Perry tipped off The Times again, and they recorded his call to Robson. Perry was worried about the subsequent meeting, for he feared that Robson must have heard about the tape recording. Luckily for Perry, Robson was interested only in further donations and, during their encounter at the Army and Navy Stores near Scotland Yard, a bizarre and blasphemous conversation was recorded, albeit garbled and obscure. Talk of ‘all those bloody crucifixes’ concealed the tip-off that Perry and the Laming brothers were to be raided and fitted up with stolen medallions. For this favour Robson required £50 from each of them.
The raid duly took place, early on Saturday, 22 November. Two of the trio were not at home. The third was taken to East Dulwich police station but was released without being charged. The fit-up scheme, if it had ever existed, had collapsed. The following Monday Perry and Robson were to meet for the next payoff, once more at The Grove.
Again Perry was searched by the reporters before and after the meeting, and again the conversation was recorded. Perry paid his £50, but told Robson the distressing news that James Laming was refusing to pay. Robert Laming would pay, but he simply did not have the money. The inspector seems to have believed that he could make them pay. But this was on a Monday, and by the following Saturday The Times had published its revelations, so Robson never received the rest of his unofficial Christmas bonus.
Throughout its investigations The Times had acted with blanket secrecy. The Home News Editor, the reporters, the recordist and the photographer, as well as Perry and his friends, had let nobody know what they were up to, although, of course, the Editor of The Times had been kept informed. Every night Garry Lloyd typed out the notes he had been taking throughout the day, while Julian Mounter took statements and had them signed. A separate file was kept on each specific case or incident as it took place. The tapes too were immediately transcribed, then locked away in a filing cabinet beyond anyone’s casual attentions.
It was about this time that the newspaper men decided on a crucial, and later fiercely criticized, tactic. The Times chose to withhold its findings from the Metropolitan Commissioner until the eve of publication, because of its fear that ‘'the whole matter could be hushed up and might not have come to light at all’. As Garry Lloyd said in the trial of Robson and Harris, ‘During our inquiry we had knowledge that we were inquiring into “a firm within a firm”. When you are dealing with a firm within a firm you do not know who is the managing director.’ It was therefore thought unwise to consult the police. ‘We considered that it would be most unsatisfactory to ask detectives or policemen to inquire into the alleged misdeeds of their colleagues.’
After many editorial conferences it was decided that the Lloyd/Mounter material would be published on Saturday, 29 November. At 8 o’clock the previous evening Colin Webb, the Home News Editor, telephoned the press office at New Scotland Yard and stated his intention to publish serious allegations against senior detectives. It was suggested to him that he call at New Scotland Yard with the evidence. At 10 p.m. Webb and Mounter arrived and were directed to see Detective Inspector Kenneth Brett, who was the Night Duty Officer for C1 Department, which dealt with allegations of serious crime. Brett was handed two sealed parcels, a letter addressed to the ‘Commissioner or Deputy’ and a copy of the first edition of The Times. Brett read the articles, at once recognized their seriousness and telephoned his superior, Detective Chief Superintendent Collins of C1, at his home.
A hurried statement was issued by Scotland Yard, acknowledging-receipt of the newspaper, tapes and documents, including signed statements alleging bribery and corruption. ‘Notice has been taken of this matter and an inquiry is in hand.’ Brett had also telephoned Peter Brodie, who as Assistant Commissioner (Crime) was the Yard’s top detective. It was decided that two chief superintendents should go through the Times material, to be ready to brief Brodie at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning. The men chosen were Roy Yorke, because he was the most senior chief superintendent and acting Commander, and Fred Lambert, because he was ‘top of the frame’, Yard jargon for Buggins’ turn, being on call at the time for whatever happened to come up. Yorke’s part in the matter was to end after the meeting with Brodie, but Lambert was to head the subsequent inquiry in its early months, until he was removed in the most strange and unsatisfactory circumstances.
Lambert opened the two sealed parcels in front of Webb and Mounter. They contained statements from Lloyd and Perry, the tapes and the tape transcripts. Overnight Lambert and Yorke read through the evidence, but by the morning they were not the only policemen aware of the contents. Before The Times was available from newsagents early that Saturday, several of the five officers either named or anonymously described in the newspaper were well aware of overnight developments. Indeed they might have been capable of briefing Brodie themselves. By the time the Assistant Commissioner (Crime) was meeting Lambert and Yorke, Robson was already discussing the revelations with a colleague in C9 Department, the Regional Crime Squad.
Detective Sergeant Symonds had been particularly quick off the mark. Sometime around 2 a.m. he had made contact with Ronald Williams, a convicted criminal, who was familiar with Symonds’ style of policing - indeed he was later named in one of the charges brought against Symonds. But at this early hour Symonds was trying to intimidate Williams into saying nothing.
Symonds immediately went on the attack. On Saturday morning he contacted Victor Lissack, a leading solicitor, and summoned him down to his home in Orpington, in the north-west Kent suburbs of London. After a miserable drive through typically rainy November weather, Lissack arrived to find his new client, a robust and weighty man, laid low with influenza. But he was well enough to protest his innocence and Lissack soon issued a statement saying that Symonds repudiated emphatically all the allegations, and that a writ for libel would be issued against The Times and its reporters early in the coming week. Within a few days Robson and Harris announced similar action.
The Metropolitan Commissioner, Sir John Waldron, was equally concerned about the Times allegations. It was arranged that he would receive a preliminary report from Detective Chief Superintendent Lambert on the Monday, and then he would decide whether to hold a further inquiry.
Waldron and his senior colleagues had been devastated by what they had read in The Times. According to one of the Yard’s most senior officers at the time, the Metropolitan hierarchy were thunderstruck not so much by the allegations but by the sneaky and ungentlemanly way the ‘evidence’ had been put together. If the newspaper had developed such strong suspicions about the behaviour of London policemen, why had not the Editor placed the preliminary evidence with the Commissioner himself? The allegations would have been investigated without mercy and followed through, if justified, into the criminal courts. The Times’ sensational method of revelation gave the suspects the most public notice possible that they should get rid of whatever incriminating evidence they might have had.
But the predominant feeling of top Yard men, no longer conversant, if they ever had been, with the day-to-day methods of the detectives who worked under them, was that of stubborn disbelief. How could The Times rely on the word of a professional criminal and on tape recordings which might easily have been forged or edited? Why did it entrust such an important story to two young and inexperienced reporters? How could the newspaper have proceeded with publication when it was bound to prejudice the chances of fair trial? Worst of all, how could The Times of all papers stoop to denigrating the reputation of Scotland Yard? There could be no more offensive spectacle than one symbol of British integrity, respected throughout the civilized world, attacking another, the world's greatest police force.
Yet the truth was that Lloyd and Mounter, though in their twenties were certainly not inexperienced. They had both been reporters since they were sixteen, with local and regional papers, and Lloyd had worked for the Press Association. They had each been with The Times for four years.
Over the weekend of publication, politicians, civil servants and editors of other newspapers urgently considered the Times allegations and what should be done about them. Maurice Edelman, who was both a Labour MP and a journalist, expressed the dismay which was common in some circles: ‘I think it is wrong that The Times should have denounced these police officers in a way which, had court proceedings already begun, would have constituted a contempt of court, and I think The Times was wrong because it used as a provocateur a convicted criminal armed with a bugging device to seek to trap these detectives.’
The Sunday Mirror took a different view and called for an independent inquiry, as did Lord Ted Willis, creator of that plodding paragon of constabulary virtue, Dixon of Dock Green. In this they were in accord with the 1961 Report of the Royal Commission on the Police, which had recommended ‘that wherever practicable an investigating officer, appointed to conduct a formal investigation under the Police (Discipline) Regulations, be appointed from a division of the force other than that in which the alleged offender is serving’. But in this case did ‘division’ mean the immediate specialist detective division or a geographical one? Or did it mean the Metropolitan CID? Or should it have meant the entire Metropolitan police force?
The crucial dilemma now confronting the Home Secretary was how to ensure that an investigation into the Times allegations could be seen to be carried out properly when the law itself effectively prevented this. Although there was some pressure to appoint an ‘independent’ inquiry, there was no legal authority for it to be conducted by anyone other than a police officer. In that sense it could not be truly independent. There was indeed no legal authority for appointing an investigating officer from outside the Metropolitan force. According to the 1964 Police Act, when a complaint was made against a policeman the chief officer of his force was to set up an investigation ‘and for that purpose may, and shall if directed by the Secretary of State, request the chief officer of police for any other police area to provide an officer of the police for that area to carry out the investigation’. But the Metropolitan Police was specifically exempt from this obligation. It had never yielded, and had never been forced to yield, its total authority to investigate complaints made against its own officers. As by far the biggest force in the country, with an authorized establishment of over 26,000, the Met had been left alone, on the grounds that it would always be possible to find an investigating officer from within who did not know the alleged offender well and who could be relied on to conduct the inquiry thoroughly, without favour or malice. This the Royal Commission had recognized, for it said in a footnote that its recommendation was already the practice in the Metropolitan force.
(1) October was also the day of the first recording with Symonds and again there was an anxious moment. Symonds nervously jested, ‘You haven’t got this thing bugged or something? ...’ Perry joked back, ‘Put a hanky over your mouth.’ It was during this conversation that Symonds made his ‘firm in a firm’ remarks.
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