It is half a century since Sir Robert Mark, the Metropolitan police commissioner brought in to clean up a force riddled at the time with corrupt detectives, famously announced that it was his intention to arrest more criminals than he employed. The findings of the independent panel into the 1987 murder of the private detective Daniel Morgan now provide a telling echo of that time, in terms of the behaviour both of the police and of those parts of the press that cheerfully rewarded and encouraged the bent coppers and dodgy private detectives who supplied them with tales.
Much has been made of the time – eight years – it has taken the panel to conclude its investigation, and the cost – £16m – involved in carrying out the inquiry. But picking through the 1,200 pages of the report and its baleful conclusions of incompetence, dishonesty, arrogance and worse would be a very worthwhile exercise for anyone concerned about the state of British policing, the criminal justice system and, not least, the relationships, past and present, between the media and the police.
The basic facts are well known: a young private detective was found murdered in a pub car park in south London in 1987 with an axe in the back of his head; there was talk that he had been about to blow the whistle with the help of a newspaper on the subject of police corruption. So whodunnit? Five police investigations failed to provide the answer and all are examined by the panel in detail. There are many different aspects to the panel’s findings that will require much further scrutiny but one is worth particular attention.
From the earliest days of the murder investigation, there were suspicions that the media had a part to play. Morgan had announced that he was planning to sell his story about corrupt relationships between the police and criminals. Although the panel came to the conclusion that, in the end, this did not stand up as the motive for the murder, the report goes into great detail about relations between the press – the News of the World, in particular – and the police.
Long before the panel started taking evidence, it was already clear that Rupert Murdoch, the owner of the News of the World, the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times, had a fairly relaxed attitude to the payment of police officers for information and suggested to his own staff that bribing the police had been going on for a hundred years. Clandestinely recorded in March 2013, at a staff meeting after the hacking balloon went up, he suggested that, “I would have thought 100% – but at least 90% – of payments were made at the instigation of cops saying, ‘I’ve got a good story here. It’s worth 500 quid’ and you would say, ‘No, it’s not’ or, ‘We’ll check it out’ or whatever and they’d say, ‘Well, we’ll try the Mirror’ … It was the culture of Fleet Street.”
It was indeed part of the culture of many parts of Fleet Street. One crime correspondent, now no longer with us, was famous for meeting detectives once a week in a central London bar and handing them envelopes stuffed with cash to thank them for their tipoffs during the week. The former drugs squad detective Norman “Nobby” Pilcher, famous in the 1960s for busting the likes of John Lennon, George Harrison and Dusty Springfield, said only last year, at the time of the publication of his memoir, Bent Coppers, that when he busted someone famous, the reason the suspect’s arrest was always caught on camera in time for an appearance on the front pages was that his corrupt colleagues cheerfully sold the information to the press in exchange for large sums of money.
The relationship between the News of the World and the very highest levels of the police also comes under critical scrutiny in the panel’s report on the decision by the former commissioner, Lord Stevens, to take on a job with the News of the World after leaving office at the Met. Given the relationship between some journalists at the News of the World and some of the suspects in the murder, this inevitably raised eyebrows at the time.
The panel puts it baldly: “It is clear that, at the very least, Lord Stevens failed to exercise due diligence before entering into a contract with the News of the World … It is appropriate for the panel to state that the demonstrated links between personnel at the highest levels of the Metropolitan police and people working for a news organisation linked to criminality associated with the murder of Daniel Morgan, are of serious and legitimate public concern. For senior police officers to take up employment with media outlets or other organisations, whose record involves criminal activity, is profoundly damaging for the reputation of the police service.”
One trusts that the Murdoch media empire will be as severe in condemnation of the News of the World in, for instance, the paper’s mad hounding of the detective investigating the murder as they have been of the BBC over the Martin Bashir and Diana, Princess of Wales interview. By a twist of fate, Boris Johnson spoke about the role of the media this very week, in the wake of the hounding of BBC and the former Guardian journalist Nicholas Watt. “The media must be able to report the facts without fear or favour,” said the prime minister. “They are the lifeblood of our democracy.” This must have brought a wry smile to the face of one former News of the World reporter, Stuart Collier. In 1990 – just after the Daniel Morgan murder – Collier was pursuing a story about Darius Guppy, an Old Etonian schoolmate of our prime minister who would later be convicted of fraud. Guppy, in a famously recorded conversation, had asked Johnson, then a working journalist himself, to find Collier’s address so that he could have him beaten up. Johnson asked how badly the journalist was to be hurt and finally agreed to help: “OK, Darry, I’ve said I’ll do it. I’ll do it, don’t worry.” When the matter was raised years later, the prime minister said he had been joking.
By chance, also, the report comes just after the Daniel Morgan case was mentioned in Line of Duty, the fictional television drama about the investigation of corruption within the service. Indeed, there are more than a few passages of the report, such as those referring to “person Z10 and person R16”, that could have come straight from a Line of Duty script. But Morgan’s murder was nonfiction and all of us in the media and beyond should be grateful to Alastair Morgan, the brother of the murdered man, whose terrier-like determination prompted the inquiry and who has been the keeper of his brother’s flame ever since. Without his tenacity, this murder would have slipped from view but is now, quite rightly, back in the news, that lifeblood of democracy. It would be great if this renewed attention could finally – finally – lead to a successful conclusion to the case.