Updated: Jul 22, 2021
Daniel Morgan died in a pub car park in Sydenham in 1987, with an axe in his head. On June 15th we learned of a long-awaited report by an Independent Panel that denounced an enduring state of “institutional corruption” within the Metropolitan Police in the way it concealed or denied its failings over the unsolved murder. But what has this to do with our cause?
The focus of press reporting has been overwhelmingly about police corruption, with calls for the resignation of Cressida Dick. However, in this article for Byline Times, Brian Cathcart points out that while the Panel report focuses primarily on the role of the police, it is equally damning about the press. The Panel’s report “lays bare serious and sustained law-breaking for which not a single journalist or editor has done a day in prison – indeed, like many others in the story, they escaped even the most basic scrutiny, while some even managed to thrive on their wrongdoing”.
Cathcart goes on to say: “Journalists who are supposed to expose crime indulged in it. Newspapers that take the most pious public line about law-breaking by others were shovelling money by the thousands towards a gang of police corrupters”. Central to this was Southern Investigations where Morgan’s former business partner, Jonathan Rees, earned £150,000 a year supplying the News of the World with illegally obtained information on various figures. However, a police review of invoices for the year 2000 suggest that the Mirror Group was Southern Investigations’ leading client, accounting for 79% of illegal transactions (see p.1080 of the Panel Report).
It is also of relevance that the News of the World carried out a surveillance operation on Dave Cook, the police officer investigating Daniel Morgan's murder, and his family, in 2002. The Panel concluded that evidence “very strongly” suggested that the purpose was to discredit Cook and/or intimidate him, and thus disrupt the investigation (Panel Report, p.517). When the newspaper’s editor Rebekah Brooks testified to a jury in 2014, she pleaded ignorance, but this begs the question as to who put Cook under surveillance.
How the media has stoked FEAR
The panel attributed the police cover-up to its repeatedly putting its reputation before solving the crime. Public figures have always feared reputational damage, but Rupert Murdoch’s entry into our media scene, starting with his purchase of the Sun in 1969, seems to have greatly exacerbated the problem. The practice of acquiring confidential information by illegal methods took off in the 1980s, and Southern Investigations came to play a leading role in the bribery of police officers, hacking and ‘blagging’. These developments seem to have given newspaper owners and editors greater leverage over politicians, and greater scope to ask political favours.
Nick Davies’ account of the Hacking Scandal provides a history of the way Murdoch’s group (News UK) secured favours from the time of Margaret Thatcher to that of David Cameron, whose Government was poised to allow him to buy 100% of Sky News – until the explosion of a scandal over the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone in 2011. The latter led to a temporary reversal of fortunes; MPs lost their fear of Murdoch and demanded a full inquiry into the scandal, and Murdoch himself experienced public humiliation. However, within a few years News UK had regained its influence and in September 2015, Rebekah Brooks was back as CEO.
Participants in a panel discussion on BBC Newsnight of 15th June agreed that reputational FEAR played a major part in the MET’s cover-up. Dominic Grieve QC made some particularly insightful statements, drawing on his considerable experience with Government institutions including the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). According to Grieve, institutions and public services try to do the right thing, but when something goes wrong, they have a very marked tendency to cover it up and sweep things under the carpet, rather than come clean and try to put things right.
He attributes this is in large part due to a “blame culture” that makes the consequences of admitting to a mistake very reputationally damaging and suggests that this is “partly the fault of the media”. The inflammatory nature of admitting mistakes means that the people responsible opt for cover-ups. Grieve concludes by saying he would advise his ex-Parliamentary colleagues to give some serious thought to this problem, without which “some of the issues that have arisen in this dreadful case would not have happened”.
We at CAMPAIN concern ourselves with cases of gross misrepresentation in public life and have identified FEAR as a key explanatory factor. While not pretending that this is the only factor, we see that politicians and other public figures, and particularly those of the centre and left, live in fear of being exposed or smeared in the media on account of anything from the revelation of an extra-marital affair to expressing views about Israel and Palestine that stray beyond the “Overton window” of acceptable discourse.
It is only with reference to FEAR that we can fully explain why journalists overwhelmingly sing from the same hymn-sheet on the topic of “anitisemitism” in the Labour Party, and systematically ignore crucial evidence that contradicts the dominant narrative. Those owning and directing the media outlets were clearly very antagonistic towards Corbyn and his political project and were more than willing to use the accusation of antisemitism as a political smear tactic, and journalists who questioned the dominant narrative had much to fear.
However, as the Daniel Morgan case illustrates, the problem is far bigger than any individual topic, and is deeply damaging to our institutional life and ability to manage our own affairs. There is no easy solution, but the best way to start is by fully recognizing its nature: we live in a country where public life and debate is being distorted by pervasive, but largely unacknowledged, FEAR among public figures.
We give the last word to Daniel’s brother, Alistair Morgan, who has been tirelessly seeking justice for the last 34 years and has witnessed five police inquiries, without success. Seeing the police, the state, politics and the media as one entanglement, he now says: “I don’t trust Britain any longer”. We must work to build (or rebuild) that trust.