The death of Daniel Morgan

Why, after five police investigations into Daniel Morgan's death, there must now be a judicial inquiry

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.


The Justice forDaniel website is here and the campaign can be followed on Twitter at @Justice4Daniel

Daniel Morgan.

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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.