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Princess Diana ‘Phone Pest’ Story Links Both Rupert Murdoch and Piers Morgan to the ‘Criminal-Media Nexus’ of Police Corruption

An amended claim by Prince Harry in the High Court puts both the interviewer and newspaper mogul in the spotlight

Piers Morgan with Rupert Murdoch. Photo: Paul Edwards/The Sun//News UK/PA/Alamy

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A newly pleaded document submitted by Prince Harry’s legal team last month as part of his ongoing case against Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers for privacy intrusion sheds more light on what former Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the “criminal-media nexus” of journalists, private investigators and corrupt cops during the heyday of the tabloids.

In an amended claim over alleged unlawful information gathering in the case of HRH Duke of Sussex v News Group Newspapers, the claimants have lodged a notorious News of the World front page, dated 21 August 1994, carrying an exclusive story alleging that Princess Diana was a ‘phone pest’. 

The story can only have come from police sources and so implicates both the then Editor of the now defunct News of the World, Piers Morgan, his then Chief Crime Reporter (now Editor of the Express) Gary Jones, and the proprietor Rupert Murdoch himself in the roaring trade between the tabloids and corrupt police officers. 

At the centre of it all – and at the centre of many of the ongoing civil claims against both Murdoch’s newspapers, Mirror Group, and the Mail titles – is the role of the infamous detective agency, Southern Investigations, and the murder of its co-founder Daniel Morgan.

Police and Tabloid Corruption

Daniel Morgan was alleged to have been investigating police corruption when he was axed to death in a south London pub car park in March 1987.

His business partner, Jonathan Rees, was the prime suspect. Rees was arrested a few weeks later, along with one of the lead detectives on the initial murder inquiry, Detective Sergeant Sid Fillery. 

At the inquest into Morgan’s death in 1988, evidence emerged that Rees and Fillery had colluded in covering up the murder. By this point, Fillery had retired from the Metropolitan Police and taken Morgan’s place at the detective agency.

Southern Investigations was now on its way to becoming a one-stop-shop for the ‘dark arts’ of unlawful newsgathering for the tabloids. 

Alastair Morgan, his partner Kirsteen Knight, and solicitor Raju Bhatt at the 2021 publication of the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel report. Photo: Kirsty O’Connor/PA/Alamy

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Southern Investigations became the main hub for selling confidential personal and financial information to the press obtained by phone-tapping, burglary, covert surveillance, and computer hacking.

Its major purchaser was Alex Marunchak, News Editor of the News of the World.

Rees and Fillery were also instrumental in training up a raft of Fleet Street journalists in subterfuge and surveillance – the most notable of which was Mazher Mahmood, the Sunday tabloid’s famous ‘fake sheikh’.

One of the main sources of both this illicit information, and the techniques for gathering it, was a network of corrupt police officers in south-east London. The trade was so extensive the CID in the area was known as the ‘News of the World Regional Crime Squad’.

Rees and Fillery’s close relationship with organised crime, and the ‘firm within a firm’ of corrupt Met Police officers, saw them engaged in a roaring trade with News International. But, even if the amounts of money siphoned-off to Southern Investigations didn’t attract the attention of the company’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, the political dimensions of their dark arts surely would have.  

When the then Culture Secretary David Mellor suggested in 1991 that the “popular press is drinking in the last chance saloon”, Southern Investigations set up the surveillance and bugging devices to expose him in an extramarital affair.

Rees and Fillery were also instrumental in the brokering of letters stolen from Paddy Ashdown’s solicitor, showing that the Liberal Democrat Leader had also once had an extramarital affair. The information was revealed just before the 1992 General Election. 

In effect, Southern Investigations and Alex Marunchak were becoming masters of politically targeted kompromat – years before the Russian term was well-known. But where do Piers Morgan and Express Editor Gary Jones fit in? And what did Rupert Murdoch know?

The Phone Pest Story

The following is an edited extract from ‘Who Killed Daniel Morgan?’, which I co-authored with Daniel Morgan’s brother Alastair Morgan

Piers Morgan took over the Editorship of the News of the World at the age of 28 in February 1994, at the height of the tabloid frenzy around the break-up of the marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles.

Morgan’s only journalistic experience to date was penning the ‘Bizarre’ celebrity column at The Sun. He appointed an even younger Rebekah Brooks to become Features Editor that spring. 

Given his inexperience with reporting, Morgan relied heavily on the older guard at the newspaper, especially his then News Editor, Alex Marunchak, whom he described as having a “deadpan, half-Ukrainian, moustachioed visage”.

Marunchak’s police sources would soon land Morgan in trouble. 

Piers Morgan, who went on to become Editor of the Mirror, after the High Court ruled there was “extensive” phone-hacking by Mirror Group Newspapers from 2006 to 2011. Photo: PA Images/Alamy

In his autobiography The Insider, Morgan explains how, in August 1994, Marunchak and Chief Crime Reporter Gary Jones walked into the Editor’s office in Wapping and explained: “Got rather a big one here, boss. Diana’s a phone pest.” Marunchak went on to elaborate: “The cops are investigating hundreds of calls she has made to a married art dealer called Oliver Hoare.”

Jones backed up his News Editor with “a read-out from the police report” which he then quoted verbatim. 

Hoare had received hundreds of silent, anonymous phone calls and reported them to the police. With the help of British Telecom, the police had traced the calls to Kensington Palace, the home of Princess Diana. 

When Hoare was informed of the source of the calls, he told police officers that he and his wife were friends of Charles and Diana and he had been – according to the police report – “consoling her and becoming quite close to her” after her separation from the then heir to the throne.

The News of the World called the antique dealer for comment. Hoare did not deny there had been a police investigation. Under the bylines of Gary Jones and Royal Reporter Clive Goodman, the News of the World splashed the story over the front and four inside pages.

The details in the exclusive could only have come from the police documents: the date of Hoare’s first complaint, the involvement of BT’s specialist Nuisance Calls Bureau, the special code BT was given to trace the calls, the activation of the code on 13 January 1994, transcripts of six silent calls, and then the tracing equipment which linked the calls to a private number used by Prince Charles.

All of this detailed information could only have been sourced from the police.

The next day, in a long interview in the Daily Mail, Princess Diana denied the story.

Piers Morgan began to worry that he had made a huge career blunder. There were calls for him to resign. Marunchak tried to reassure the News of the World Editor by telling him: “We’ve had the report read to us, she’s lying.” But Morgan still feared that the document could be a forgery. 

“I felt sick to the pit of my stomach,” Morgan recalled in The Insider. “I couldn’t eat or even drink a cup of tea, it was hellish.”

What Murdoch Knew

The only thing that finally put Morgan’s mind at rest was a call from his proprietor, Rupert Murdoch. 

“Hi Piers,” Murdoch said. “I can’t really talk for long but I just wanted you to know that your story is 100% bang on. Can’t tell you how I know, but I just know.”

He then instructed his Editor to get on TV and tell the world that Princess Diana is “a liar”, and to promise more material in the Sunday tabloid the following week. 

Though relieved, Morgan couldn’t help admitting to Murdoch that he didn’t have any more material. Murdoch replied: “Oh, you will have by Sunday, don’t worry. Gotta go. Good luck.”

How had Murdoch independently verified the story? It was Alex Marunchak who had seen the police report. Would the proprietor have checked with his veteran News Editor? 

At the Leveson Inquiry into the practices, culture and ethics of the press in 2012 – following the exposure of the phone-hacking scandal the year before – Murdoch explicitly denied even remembering meeting Marunchak. But, in careful legal language guarding against any surviving photos, he added: “I might have shaken hands, walking through the office.”

By that point, Marunchak had served in a number of senior roles at the News of the World from his first days in the Wapping dispute, attending parties with the News International CEO and senior police officers, to being made Editor of the Irish edition two decades later. 

Steve Grayson, a freelance photographer who worked at the Sunday tabloid in the late 1990s, recalls Marunchak explicitly saying that he had a direct call from Murdoch on one occasion.

Despite his growing global influence, there is also no doubt that, during this era, Murdoch himself still called senior management at the newspaper most Friday or Saturday nights to check what stories were coming up. And there’s more evidence that Murdoch was well aware of the existence of Marunchak, who had served his company for more than 25 years.

Prince Harry with his lawyer David Sherborne at the High Court during his recent trial against Mirror Group Newspapers. Photo: PA/Alamy

In correspondence from September 1997, the then Taoiseach of Ireland, Bertie Ahern, wrote personally to Murdoch to thank him for the News of the World’s coverage of the country’s General Election. He said he particularly “appreciated the very professional approach of your Associate Editor Alex Marunchak”. Ahern even asked Murdoch to pass on “my thanks and best wishes to Alex”.

Murdoch replied on 30 September 1997: “I shall be delighted to pass on your comments.”

Whatever Murdoch’s uncertain memories of Alex Marunchak, the ultimate source of Piers Morgan’s scoop was a confidential police file. Later, Morgan was careful to say that the source wasn’t a ‘serving police officer’ – partly because that would have opened him, and any police officer, up to criminal charges. 

Nobody was censured or sanctioned for the phone pest story. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Gary Jones went on to win the Press Gazette’s Reporter of the Year Award, partly due to his News of the World exclusive about Diana’s anonymous calls.

Criticised by the then Press Complaints Council for another intrusive royal splash, Morgan would leave the Murdoch Sunday tabloid in 1995 and take up an even more senior position editing its rival, the Daily Mirror.

He would soon bring over Jones and, with him, the dark arts of Sid Fillery and Jonathan Rees.

Ongoing Trials

While the judge has not ruled whether Prince Harry’s claims can date back to 1994 and the targeting of his mother, the evidence of Gary Jones’ relationship with Southern Investigations has already been heard in the case of the Duke of Sussex and other claimants against Mirror Group Newspapers. 

The judge in that case, Justice Fancourt, concluded that Piers Morgan, as Editor of the Mirror newspapers, must have known about phone-hacking and other unlawful information gathering. 

Meanwhile, similar evidence is due to be heard in the pending claims by Prince Harry and others (including Baroness Doreen Lawrence) in claims against the publishers of the Mail and Mail on Sunday.  

According to the particulars of claim issued so far, Associated Newspapers also procured the services of private investigators involved in illicit information, including allegations that Southern Investigations were involved in targeting the family of Stephen Lawrence, murdered by a racist gang connected to the south-east London underworld in 1993. 

Like the tabloids used to say, this story will run and run. 

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