Were the resources of News International used by a criminal suspect in 2002 to subvert a major murder investigation? That was the significant allegation made yesterday at the Leveson inquiry by former Crimewatch presenter Jacqui Hames.
To a certain extent this is not a new accusation. In July 2011, Channel 4 stated that the News of the World had put Dave Cook, the police officer investigating the murder of Daniel Morgan, under surveillance. Also in July 2011, Nick Davies wrote at the Guardian of a 2003 meeting at Scotland Yard attended by Rebekah Brooks:
As editor of the News of the World Rebekah Brooks was confronted with evidence that her paper's resources had been used on behalf of two murder suspects to spy on the senior detective who was investigating their alleged crime.
Brooks was summoned to a meeting at Scotland Yard where she was told that one of her most senior journalists, Alex Marunchak, had apparently agreed to use photographers and vans leased to the paper to run surveillance on behalf of Jonathan Rees and Sid Fillery, two private investigators who were suspected of murdering another investigator, Daniel Morgan, when the latter was a partner of Rees's in the firm Southern Investigations. The Yard saw this as a possible attempt to pervert the course of justice.
Brooks was also told of evidence that Marunchak had a corrupt relationship with Rees, who had been earning up to £150,000 a year selling confidential data to the News of the World. Police told her that a former employee of Rees had given them a statement alleging that some of these payments were diverted to Marunchak, who had been able to pay off his credit card and pay his child's private school fees.
When this surveillance exercise was put to Brooks for an explanation she allegedly responded that the News of the World was interested in whether Cook was having an affair with Hames. This was unconvincing, not least because Cook and Hames were married at the time.
The fact of surveillance and the lack of any plausible explanation are therefore not novel. But what is perhaps new is the alleged motivation for the surveillance. Hames says at paragraph 40 of her witness statement:
I believe that the real reason for the News of the World placing us under surveillance was that suspects in the Daniel Morgan murder inquiry were using their association with a powerful and well-resourced newspaper to try to intimidate us and so attempt to subvert the investigation.
This is certainly a more compelling explanation than that which Brooks is reported as having offered in 2003.
Here the following background facts are interesting. The main suspect of the 1987 killing -- who was eventually acquitted of the murder in March 2011 -- was Jonathan Rees, a man well-known in Fleet Street for providing private information from dubious sources. Rees's key client appears to have been the News of the World. Rees had been the business partner of Morgan at the time of the murder. He was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment in 2000 for perversion of the course of justice in an case unrelated to the Morgan murder, but on his release, he was rehired for the News of the World by Andy Coulson. (For more on Rees, see Nick Davies here). Rees was a powerful and well-connected man in the tabloid world.
There are many aspects of the Daniel Morgan murder case which remain highly unsatisfactory. The desultory initial police investigation, and the later and repeated failures of the criminal justice system, warrant a full judicial inquiry in themselves, and Tom Watson MP is rightly raising the case later today in the House of Commons.
But it so happens that Hames's allegation falls neatly within the remit of the "press and police" module of the Leveson inquiry. Should the Leveson inquiry wish to take the allegation forward, it will presumably fall on News International and Rebekah Brooks to provide an explanation for the surveillance of Hames and Cook. An allegation that a media organisation allowed its resources to be used so as to attempt to subvert a murder investigation is about as serious as it gets. Those responsible for what the News of the World did should now get to tell us their "side of the story".
David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman