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 tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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