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Insights Michael Baker

Policing reputations

An inquiry into a historic murder has extraordinary implications for today’s communicators 

Daniel Morgan was a 37-year-old private investigator found dead with an axe sunken into his neck in a London pub car park in March 1987. Despite four police investigations, Daniel’s killer(s) were never brought to justice.  

This week, after eight years’ work a panel examining why the investigations collapsed – and the murky links between private investigators, police and journalists – reported its findings. The verdict was eviscerating, declaring the Metropolitan Police to be “institutionally corrupt” as it failed to properly investigate and repeatedly covered up past mistakes.  

That there were grave errors in the police work is beyond doubt. But the panel’s findings on the primacy the force gave to protecting its reputation, over the public, are the most remarkable. This was corruption for reputational, rather than financial gain, according to the panel.  

Police officers justified their disclosures to reporters saying they were correcting misunderstandings, protecting the police’s reputation and acting in the public interest. The panel was concerned this was “very much” the language of the Met’s media relations policy. They also found that the Met’s own report into the case in 2006 limited the impact on the force’s reputation by focussing only on one “bad apple” involved in the original investigation.  

This is language that all those charged with protecting an organisation’s reputation will recognise.  

As communications and media officers, we must make considered and careful choices over what to disclose, when and to whom. There are clear rules about much of this – in the public and private sectors – but like in policing there is considerable room for our own discretion.  

On occasion, we must discern if we are being played by our own colleagues and judge an organisation and its leadership’s sincerity. Reputations are built on the credibility of people, none more so than those on the frontline of managing reputation. If we foot soldiers in that effort do not protect our personal credibility, we are unable to represent any company or organisation effectively.  

We all have lines we will not cross. Like others I know in our industry, I have parted with an organisation when I no longer believed it was seeking to tackle serious allegations. I was unwilling to invest my reputation into its cause. But the panel into Daniel Morgan’s murder believes this cannot be left to people’s own conscience. They have recommended a statutory “duty of candour” for public services including the police.  

This could have huge ramifications for how communications teams work, providing a floor or a ceiling for disclosure, depending on an organisation’s starting position. There will be those in our industry who say the private sector will be unaffected and besides, there is already a “duty of candour” for the NHS, designed to tackle institutional defensiveness.  

This is short-sighted. While the Freedom of Information Act never applied to private businesses, it helped to create new societal expectations around transparency. As the Companies Act is reformed to take broader stakeholders – not simply shareholders into account – one could also envisage new rules on disclosure for private companies.  

There’s a debate over whether the Met’s actions constituted “institutionalised” corruption. The force has fought back hard. But the panel’s findings make clear that societal expectations around an organisation’s openness continue to evolve.  

Yet we must resist the seduction that trust and confidence are merely outputs of disclosure and candour. We have seen how freedom of information laws brought greater transparency but not necessarily more trust or understanding. As the guardians and architects of stakeholder confidence, it’s the role of good corporate affairs and communications to provide the credible – and trusted – interpretation, understanding and narrative needed. That starts with searching discussions in our teams and organisations about the ethics, practices and conduct of what we can – and cannot do – in the interests of the organisations we serve. 

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