Today
Thu 29 July 2021

Peter Jukes with a round-up of possible media strategies and news manipulation

On the 28th anniversary of the murder of Daniel Morgan, I accompanied his brother Alastair Morgan to News UK’s headquarters at London Bridge when he delivered a letter begging Rupert Murdoch to cooperate with the panel inquiry into Daniel’s murder, established two years previously. 

Alastair wrote to the head of News Corp. “We need to know the truth about what happened to Daniel and why. You are in a unique position to help us finally lay Daniel to rest.”

Two days later, on 14 March 2015, Murdoch replied saying that he had “no personal knowledge of the matters you allege”, but that he would “respond appropriately to any further government investigation”.

Tomorrow, we will see how appropriate that response has been. All the indications are that News UK/News Corp has not been forthcoming with the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel because – unlike the planned Part Two of the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics, culture and practices of the British press – the Panel has no powers of subpoena over the media company or to compel witnesses under oath.

But how will Murdoch’s publications, the Sun and The Times, and a wider pool of journalists and editors respond to the report which will cover a story of deep and implacable criminality at the heart of the British press over four decades? 


Masters of Media Manipulation 

Though it is now reaching a wider audience, the Daniel Morgan story has been infamous in Fleet Street since it happened 34 years ago. Daniel was a private detective who knew several journalists and was trying to place a major story of police corruption at the time of his murder. 

Daniel’s business partner in his detective agency, Jonathan Rees, an early suspect and the last person who knew Daniel to see him alive, was even closer to the press, and a master of selective information and straight-up misinformation. Somehow, Rees’ disinformation about Daniel made its way into the first BBC Crimewatch report in 1987, with the dramatic reconstruction marred by an unrecognisable rendering of Daniel’s disability (he had a barely noticeable club foot) and opening with the disgraceful suggestion that he was some kind of peeping Tom.

Throughout the first murder investigation, Rees was constantly planning to get stories about the lead investigators into the press, even plotting to fit one of them up by placing drugs in his car (a crime he actually carried out on another victim in 1999). 

By the time of the inquest in 1988, allegations in the coroner’s court that Rees had conspired with local police in the murder made national headlines. Prescient evidence that Rees’ close friend Detective Sergeant Sid Fillery, who had worked on the first murder inquiry, would leave the Met and take Daniel’s place at Southern Investigation had also come true. 

So what was the press’s reaction to this disturbing story of police corruption and a horrific axe murder? They wanted to work with the suspects.  

Rees and Fillery worked for News of the World and the Mirror Group for the next 13 years until Rees was arrested for perverting the course of justice and Fillery was caught harbouring images of child sexual abuse on his computer. However, as soon as Rees was released from his seven-year sentence for fitting up a mother in a custody dispute with cocaine, he was rehired by the News of the World editor Andy Coulson.


Modern News Management 

Five failed murder investigations later, spin, evasion and mendacity still affect media coverage of the murder.

As former detective and Crimewatch presenter Jacqui Hames points out, her Leveson evidence on News of the World’s attempt to derail the fourth murder investigation was knocked from the headlines by a story leaked to the Independent about Rebekah Brooks borrowing a police horse. Coincidence, perhaps? Except the story was released to coincide by minutes with Hames’ evidence, and the journalist who released it soon got a berth at Murdoch’s Sunday Times.

I only came to this extraordinary story eight years ago after the phone-hacking scandal, but even then it was quite clear how many journalists could still be seduced by Rees’ proffers of scoops and inside information. When I first starting writing about the story for the Daily Beast in 2012, Rees was constantly touting tasty morsels about the BBC or Piers Morgan to the publication. 

He continued doing this as soon as a Channel 4 documentary was commissioned a few months after our podcast Untold became a hit on iTunes in 2016, with various journalists friendly to him trying to get in on the act. In the end, the three-part series Murder in the Car Park managed to swerve too much of their influence, though I thought the first episode was unbalanced by giving Rees and Fillery too much time to air (and even dramatically reconstructing) their obvious lies. 

But now this evidence is about to be given the imprimatur of an official report and lodged in Parliament, how will many of those linked to Southern Investigations react to tomorrow’s publication? 


A Good Day to Bury Bad News?

My best guess is that Piers Morgan, who took Southern Investigations from News of the World to the Mirror Group, will ignore the report. So too, his former lieutenant, now editor of the Express, Gary Jones. Morgan’s close friends Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks will probably also studiously avoid public comment. But Brooks’ news publications can comment by distraction and manipulation.

Given the Sun’s legendary ‘black museum’, a seven-foot safe described in court as filled with “eye-popping” material on public figures, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the Sun, the Mirror or the Express to drop some other big story which they have been sitting on to change the headlines. But it’s a bit obvious.

More subtle could be the ‘lines to take’ from news organisations affiliated to Brooks or Morgan.  

Because the panel report has disclosure from the Metropolitan Police, institutional corruption there is a natural and legitimate line to take. The broadsheet Times has already apparently decided, in a piece by crime reporter Fiona Hamilton and Untouchables co-author Mike Gilliard, that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick will be accused of delaying the Daniel Morgan axe murder inquiry

But here come the sins of omission. There is a useful timeline to the 34 year-long saga below the Times piece, but it strangely omits any reference to how the suspects worked with Times’ stablemate, News of the World, which also tried to derail the last two murder investigations into them. 

Even publications that have held Brooks and Morgan to account can behave weirdly, especially in the post-Leveson furore over press regulation. Gilliard also writes on the subject extensively for Private Eye where his coverage focuses on the failings of former Detective Chief Superintendent Dave Cook, who led the final and fifth murder investigation which collapsed in a pre-trial hearing 10 years ago. 

Cook, described by the Morgan Family as the only Met detective “they ever trusted”, mishandled a key supergrass. But that was not the reason the trial collapsed and, to blame him for the failures and corruption of the Met for a quarter of a century would be, in the words of the family’s solicitor Raju Bhatt “a travesty of justice”. I wrote to Private Eye pointing this out and correcting some facts about the pre-trial hearings, which continued for a year after the supergrass evidence was judged inadmissible. But it refused to publish my letter.

The Mail has published some excellent stories in the last few years, especially by its veteran crime reporter Steve Wright. But even he seems wary of mentioning the evidence of press collusion and, in his most recent piece, somehow thinks the disastrous Operation Midland investigation into VIP child sexual abuse is a close analogy to 34 years of Met cover-up over Daniel’s murder. I fail to see any real connection, except it helps target former Labour MP Tom Watson, who played a role in getting the Daniel Morgan story airtime ten years ago.

There is more hope from our broadcasters. Though, as always, wary of breaking tough investigative stories and with the much stricter Ofcom rules to abide by, the BBC will finally have the security of parliamentary privilege and an official report to lean on. Radio journalist Adrian Goldberg (who now edits the Byline Times podcast) did some groundbreaking work on the story on BBC Radio 4 10 years ago. Sanchia Berg is also a BBC reporter who, like Andy Davies on Channel 4 News knows their stuff and will not be cowed by the interests of senior figures in the press who – whatever the report says – have a wealth of explaining to do. 

The publication of the Daniel Morgan panel report will be revealing, not only because of what it tells us about press corruption over the last four decades but also how much is still going on today through the complicity of spin and silence. 

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