Late on 10 March 1987 a man was murdered in the car park of a south London pub. The man was Daniel Morgan, a father of two, and the founding partner of a private investigation firm called Southern Investigations. Morgan was 37 years-old when he died; had he lived he would now be 62.
The murder was brutal.
He was struck to the head four times with an axe. "As a result of these injuries there was evidence of direct brain damage which resulted in death," recorded the pathologist drily. When the body was discovered, the axe was still embedded in the victim's face. There was no evidence of Morgan having defended himself. The killing appears to have been swift.
Whatever the motive for this murder, it was not obviously theft. It seems that valuables were not taken. But such was the nature of the attack that it was evident that it must have had a motive and have been premeditated; this was not some random execution. The axe handle was carefully wrapped so that it did not have finger prints. The lack of a gun meant there was no sound of a shot, nor any firearm to be traced or disposed of. The axe was non-descript: it was one of thousands of that model imported that year for High Street retail from an overseas supplier. So the murder was clearly a deliberate act, undertaken in a way so as to avoid the detection of the persons who had carried it out.
But why does this one murder matter some twenty-five years later?
After all, there were about 600 other murders in Britain in 1987: why should this particular homicide warrant any more attention in 2012 than any of the others? Surely the facts that the murder remains unsolved and that it was particularly gruesome do not by themselves prioritise this case above the many other dreadful killings which remain unexplained.
However, the aftermath of the death of Daniel Morgan still matters today for anyone interested in how the relationship between the police and media took the form it did over the last quarter century. This is partly because of what the aftermath tells of the horrifying scope of police corruption and the wrongful trade in private information. And it is partly because of how the mainstream media – and one newspaper group in particular – came to be allegedly involved in the attempts to frustrate a police investigation. In a way, the Daniel Morgan case serves as a grim index of many things which went wrong in the relationship between policing, the media, and the criminal justice sytem in the UK over the last twenty-five years.
Police corruption and the failure of the criminal justice system
The collective failure of the police and the courts to provide justice has been as staggering as it has been drawn out. To have one failed investigation is unfortunate; but in this matter there has been five separate police investigations over twenty-five year costing an estimated £30 million, and all without a single defendant being put before a jury, let alone convicted.
There were police investigations in 1987, 1988-89, 1998-2000, 2002-03, and most recently after 2008. Certain individuals have been arrested and re-arrested, and charged and re-charged in relation to the murder, like so many toys moving around on a circular track; but something always happened to prevent the case ever going to full trial.
Like the cases of Stephen Lawrence and the Cardiff Three, the Daniel Morgan case shows something rotten in the police culture of the time. Senior police officers now freely admit that "corruption was a deliberating factor" in the initial investigation of the crime. Former Assistant Commissioner John Yates was quoted as saying that the case "is one of the more deplorable episodes in the entire history of the Metropolitan Police". It is a murder investigation which has gone wrong in many ways for twenty-five years.
The one stark underlying problem has been the apparant extensive commercial and personal relationships between some of those suspected of the murder and the local police. One prime suspect seems to have had numerous contacts in the Metropolitan Police, who provided him with extensive information in return for cash and favours.
This trade in private information was not a mere dodgy business concern for pin money and the cost of lunch and a beer; it was instead the apparent misuse of police information on an almost industrial scale, and one which was worth hundreds of thousands a year. It was almost as if the police were not custodians of the peace but were instead a commercial entity in a supply chain. There would, of course, be many vested interests in not upsetting such a cart of bad apples.
This, however, is not the full story.
The relationship between the media and the wrongful trade in private information
What electrifies this particular case, and makes it a matter of wider public concern, is not the predictable and mundane if depressing presence of evident police corruption and a roaring trade in private information.
It is that as the 1990s and 2000s went by, the tabloid media became the greatest customers of the private information obtained and sold on by some of those suspected of the murder of Daniel Morgan and still connected with Southern Investigations. Here the story shifts from the environs of a south London car park to contaminate what is still called “Fleet Street”.
During this period, as Nick Davies has put it, for Southern Investigations the money simply came pouring in. Even when one central figure in this matter was released from a lengthy prison sentence (for a crime unrelated to Daniel Morgan) he was immediately given another lucrative contract by the editor of a national newspaper so as to supply information.
And as the reach of both the commercial activity and the influence of Southern Investigations extended, it appeared that the resources of at least one national newspaper were actually employed at the direction or request of a suspect so as to frustrate one of the police investigations into Daniel Morgan's death. Evidence for this startling contention was put before the Leveson Inquiry earlier this year (see Jacqui Hames' witness statement here at paragraphs 29-42, and a post by Brown Moses here).
One cannot know whether these worrying allegations are true or false; but if this exercise in surveillance and intimidation did happen then it means this was no longer just a matter of corruption in south London. It would seem an international media company was now implicated as being used by powerful men seeking to avoid prosecution by frustating a police investigation.
Why there needs to be a judicial inquiry
The recent arrests of two individuals closely connected with this case means that this post cannot expand on some of the points made above (even if the arrests seem not to be connected with the murder of Daniel Morgan) and so I have avoided naming names. Those individuals are entitled to due process, and nothing in this post or follow-on posts should be taken to prejudice their cases in the event that they are charged on any criminal matter.
In any case, this is not an exercise in "trial by blog" - the correct place for determining any criminal liability is always in a courtroom. Indeed, as it stands, there appears to be no direct and admissible evidence against any suspect in relation to the death of Daniel Morgan. This is not about the guilt of any particular person.
There is a wider issue here than the criminal liability of any of the individuals suspected of the murder.
The failures in dealing with case of Daniel Morgan seem to be systemic. As I will set out in the follow-on posts, for twenty-five years there appears to have been (at best) a reluctance by the Metropolitan Police to fully ensure that there is any justice in this case.
Alastair Morgan, the brother of Daniel Morgan, a good man who campaigned tirelessly for justice for his brother for twenty-five years, tells me that he has encountered obstruction and secrecy by the Metropolitan Police at every turn.
The first and most important investigation was fundamentally flawed – one of the investigating officers was even subsequently charged (but not convicted) in connection with the murder and he certainly did not disclose his connections to the deceased at the time. The other investigations, as I will set out, were inadequate and inconclusive in various ways. Even the final investigation led only to an Old Bailey hearing of a year and a half devoted to mere preliminary legal argument before collapsing in March 2011 due to the avoidable failure of the police to disclose evidence to the defendants, in addition to the striking out of inadmissible “supergrass” evidence.
In response to an adjournment debate called by Tom Watson MP earlier this year, the Home Office said that the Metropolitan Police were undertaking a new “forensic review” of the available evidence (similar to that which uncovered DNA evidence against the murderers of Stephen Lawrence) in the hope that something fresh may turn up. But Alastair Morgan and others no longer have confidence in the Metropolitan Police. It is easy to see why. They have been let down too many times.
The collapse last year of the Old Bailey hearing means that, as a matter of law, there is little or no likelihood of there ever being a criminal trial. Six key suspects were either acquitted or discharged. They are, rightly, to be presumed innocent. It would appear that no one will ever be convicted in relation to the murder of Daniel Morgan.
There needs to be a judicial inquiry: not to apportion criminal liability, but to ascertain what exactly went repeatedly wrong over these twenty-five years. In particular, there needs to be an examination of the extent of influence various suspects had over police decisions in investigating the murder.
No one can say that this shameful record of seeming corruption, incompetence, abuses of power, and legal failures is actually acceptable, even to the acquitted and discharged defendants. Justice has not even been served from the suspects' point of view (one of whom has also called for an inquiry). The Home Office, wisely, has said that it has not closed its mind to an inquiry in the event the “forensic review” comes up with nothing.
It may well be that a judicial inquiry cannot take place until due process for those recently arrested for what seem unrelated offences has run its course.
But the issues raised by what happened in the aftermath of the death of Daniel Morgan would benefit from an experienced judge being able to compel evidence and ask questions under oath or affirmation.
Indeed, there is no other sensisible way an overall failure of this scale can be addressed.
Such an inquiry may not bring justice for the murder of Daniel Morgan; but it may demonstrate why such justice was not achieved, and revealing this would be a good thing in itself.