Did the News of the World seek to undermine a murder investigation?

The significant allegation of Jacqui Hames at the Leveson inquiry.

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

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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The Taliban's succession crisis will not diminish its resilience

Haibatullah Akhunzada's appointment as leader of the Taliban may put stress on the movement, but is unlikely to dampen its insurgency. 

After 19 years under the guidance of the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, the group has now faced two succession crises in under a year. But although Haibatullah Akhunzada’s appointment as leader of the Taliban will likely put stress on the movement, it shows few signals of diminishing its renewed insurgency.

The news pretty much ends speculation about former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death in a US airstrike in Pakistan’s south-western Baluchistan province, which was criticised by Islamabad as a violation of its sovereignty.

The Taliban would have prepared extensively for this eventuality. The fast appointment, following days of intense council, appears to be a conspicuous act of decisiveness. It stands in contrast to the two-year delay the movement faced in announcing the death of the Mullah Omar. It will be not be lost on the Taliban that it was subterfuge around the death of Mullah Omar that caused the fracture within the movement which in turn led to the establishment of an ISIS presence in the country.

The appointment is a victory for the Taliban old guard. As former head of the Taliban's judiciary and Mullah Mansour’s deputy, in many ways, Haibatullah is a natural successor. Haibatullah, described by Afghanistan expert Sami Yousafzai as a “stone age Mullah,” demonstrates the Taliban’s inherent tendency to resort to tradition rather than innovation during times of internal crisis.

The decision taken by the Taliban to have an elder statesman of the group at the helm highlights the increasing marginalisation of the Haqqani network, a powerful subset within the Taliban that has been waging an offensive against the government and coalition forces in northwest Pakistan.

Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network who already has a bounty of 5 million dollars on his head, was touted in some Taliban circles as a potential successor, however the decision to overlook him is a conservative move from the Taliban. 

The Taliban’s leadership of the jihad against the Afghan government is hinged on their claims to religious legitimacy, something the group will hope to affirm through the Haibatullah’s jurisprudential credentials. This assertion of authority has particular significance given the rise of ISIS elements in the country. The last two Taliban chiefs have both declared themselves to be amir ul-momineen or ‘leader of the faithful,’ providing a challenge to the parallel claims of ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Any suggestions that Mansour’s death will lead to the unravelling of the Taliban are premature. The military targeting of prominent jihadi leaders within group structures has been seen in operations against the leadership of ISIS, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and other groups.

In recent research for the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, we found that it is often less prominent jihadis that play an integral role in keeping the movement alive. Targeted killings do create a void, but this often comes at the expense of addressing the wider support base and ideological draw of militant outfits. This is particularly relevant with a relatively decentralised movement like the Taliban.

Such operations can spur activity. If the example of the Taliban’s previous leadership succession is to be heeded, we might expect renewed attacks across Afghanistan, beyond the group’s strongholds near the eastern border with Pakistan. The brief capture of Kunduz, Afghanistan's fifth-largest city, at the end of September 2015, was a show of strength to answer the numerous internal critics of Mullah Mansour’s new leadership of the movement.

In a news cycle dominated by reports of ISIS, and to a diminishing extent al-Qaeda, atrocities, it is important to comprehend the renewed brutality of the Afghan insurgency.  Data from the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics Global Extremism Monitor found a seventeen per cent rise in fatalities from March to April, marking the start of the Taliban’s spring fighting season. A suicide attack in central Kabul on the headquarters of an elite military unit that killed 64 people was the single most deadly act of terror around the world in the month of April, and the group’s bloodiest attack in the Afghan capital for years. Reports this morning of a suicide attack on a bus killing 10 staff from an appeal court west of Kabul, suggests that the violence shows no sign of diminishing under the new leadership.

All these developments come during a period of renewed impetus behind international peace talks. Last week representatives from Pakistan were joined by delegates from Afghanistan, the United States, and China in an attempt to restart the stalled negotiation process with the Taliban.

Haibatullah Akhunzada’s early leadership moves will be watched closely by these countries, as well as dissonant voices within the movement, to ascertain what the Taliban does next, in a period of unprecedented challenge for the infamously resilient movement. 

Milo Comerford is a South and Central Asia Analyst for the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics