The meaning of ‘institutional corruption’ – how the Daniel Morgan independent panel set about defining the term

26th June 2021

The independent panel report on Daniel Morgan found that the Metropolitan police was – and is – institutionally corrupt.

To dispute this finding – let alone to attempt to repudiate or refute it – requires you to do one (or both) of two things.

Either you have to challenge the facts on which the finding is based – and this is difficult in respect of the Daniel Morgan report, which is comprehensively sourced and footnoted (and all the report’s critical findings would also have been put to those criticised for their response as part of the preparation of the report).

Or you have to challenge the definition itself.

And so this blogpost sets out the definition adopted and then applied by the panel in the compilation of the report.

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The relevant part for the definition is deep inside the report, on pages 1022 to 1025 of this pdf (page numbers 1017 to 1021 of the document itself).

The starting point is the terms of reference for the panel, which included:

‘The purpose and remit of the Independent Panel is to shine a light on the circumstances of Daniel Morgan’s murder, its background and the handling of the case over the whole period since March 1987.

‘In doing so, the Panel will seek to address the questions arising, including those relating to:

‘[…] the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible for the murder from being brought to justice and the failure to confront that corruption […].’

(Please note that in this post I break the paragraphs of the report out into sentences for flow and sense.)

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The panel, however, did not just proceed from the terms of reference, but sought to understand what ‘corruption’ meant in this context:

‘The Terms of Reference give a vague formulation of […] the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible.

‘There are two possible interpretations of this.

‘It could mean that,

‘i. one or more police officers became aware after the murder of who was responsible and protected them; or

‘ii. one or more police officers who were not aware of who was responsible for the murder committed corrupt acts for their own reasons, and in so doing compromised the investigation with the result that there was no evidence capable of proving who was responsible for the murder and of bringing them to justice.’

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The panel then said that it was taking its term of reference,

‘[…] the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible for the murder from being brought to justice and the failure to confront that corruption […]’

to mean,

‘whether there was any police corruption affecting the investigation of the murder and making it impossible to bring whoever was responsible to justice’.

Here the panel had regard to the metropolitan police’s own admission that there had been a ‘failure to confront the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible for the murder from being brought to justice’.

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So that it how the panel was to interpret its term of reference.

But this does itself not tell us what the ‘corruption’ word means.

As the panel noted:

‘The Panel’s Terms of Reference do not include a definition of corruption.’

As the terms was not defined in there terms of reference, the panel had to work out its own definition.

In doing so, the panel looked at other definitions and uses of the word:

‘The Panel has therefore developed its own definition, drawing upon the definitions of corruption and corrupt behaviour used by relevant bodies.

‘Such bodies include the Independent Police Complaints Commission and its successor organisation, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, the National Police Chiefs Council, the College of Policing and the Metropolitan Police.

[…]

‘To inform its analysis, the Panel has drawn upon the report of the mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry, the report by Mark Ellison QC on his review concerning the Stephen Lawrence investigation, the report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel and the subsequent report by the Right Reverend James Jones KCB, the report of the Gosport Independent Panel, and the work of the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire.

‘These inquiries and reports provide important insights into serious failures of a variety of public services, including but not limited to the police, and address the complex issues of accountability and corruption.’

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Having had regard to how other inquires and reports have defined and used the word ‘corruption’, the panel also considered the common definitions and uses of the word:

‘The generic definition of corruption is ‘dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery’.

‘This definition suggests that for dishonest conduct to amount to corruption the person acting corruptly must be someone in power or exercising powers.

‘This definition would apply to police forces, prison, probation and healthcare services, or other organisations serving the public.

‘In these settings, ‘corruption’ may denote the misuse of authority in terms of deviance from the law, professional norms, ethical standards or public expectations.

‘In common parlance ‘corruption’ is also used to refer to the venal behaviour of persons who do not hold positions of power, but who do have something to sell, or who act as corrupters in that they bribe persons exercising powers to commit corrupt acts: it follows that people within and outside the police may be involved in ‘corrupt behaviour’.’

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Having had regard to these other definitions and uses, the panel then went back to its own terms of references:

‘The Panel’s Terms of Reference require it to consider, primarily, wider questions relating to corruption.

‘It is asked to address:

‘i. ‘police involvement in the murder’.

‘By any reasonable person’s definition, if police officers commit or assist in planning a murder, it is not only the most serious crime of taking a person’s life, but it is also the gravest breach of the duties of a police officer.

‘ii. ‘the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible for the murder from being brought to justice and the failure to confront that corruption’.

‘The ‘corruption’ is not explained further, but the Terms of Reference refer to the fact that ‘in March 2011 the Metropolitan Police acknowledged “the repeated failure of the MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] to confront the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible for the murder from being brought to justice”.

‘iii. ‘the incidence of connections between private investigators, police officers and […] the media and alleged corruption involved in the linkages between them’.

‘To do this, the Panel has adopted an expansive approach to ‘corruption’, including the conduct of the police and the behaviour of other individuals linked to the police or involved in corrupt activity with them.’

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So having considered how the term ‘corruption’ is or had been used elsewhere – from similar reports to common parlance, and having also considered what the word must mean in the context of the terms of reference, the panel then set out the definition of ‘corruption’ for the report.

It was a broad and deliberately flexible definition:

‘The Panel has adopted a broad definition of corruption for the purposes of its work.

‘The definition below is based on the key elements of dishonesty and benefit, and allows for the involvement of a variety of actors and a variety of forms of benefit:

‘The improper behaviour by action or omission:

‘i. by a person or persons in a position of power or exercising powers, such as police officers;

‘ii. acting individually or collectively;

‘iii. with or without the involvement of other actors who are not in a position of power or exercising powers; for direct or indirect benefit :

‘iv. of the individual(s) involved; or

‘v. for a cause or organisation valued by them; or

‘vi. for the benefit or detriment of others; such that a reasonable person would not expect the powers to be exercised for the purpose of achieving that benefit or detriment.

‘The Panel has used this definition to consider the conduct of the police officers involved in the investigations of the murder of Daniel Morgan.

‘The Panel includes in its wider definition of corruption some instances of failures on the part of senior officers/managers, acting as representatives of their organisations.

‘The documentation reveals the following wide range of actions and omissions by senior postholders on behalf of their organisations; many of these actions and omissions have been identified in the reports of other independent panels and inquiries:

‘i. failing to identify corruption;

‘ii. failing to confront corruption;

‘iii. failing to manage investigations and ensure proper oversight; 

‘iv. failing to take a fresh look at past mistakes and failures; 

‘v. failing to learn from past mistakes and failures;

‘vi. failing to admit past mistakes and failures promptly and specifically;

‘vii. giving unjustified assurances;

‘viii. failing to make a voluntarily commitment to candour; and ix. failing to be open and transparent.’

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The panel were also aware that important in understanding any practical definition is an understanding of what is not included:

‘[…] failings do not all automatically fall within the definition of corruption. Some may result from professional incompetence or poor management.’

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And now the panel comes to what it meant by ‘institutional corruption’:

‘However, when the failures cannot reasonably be explained as genuine error and indicate dishonesty for the benefit of the organisation, in the Panel’s view they amount to institutional corruption.

‘A lack of candour on the part of the Metropolitan Police in respect of its failings is shown by a lack of transparency, as well as prevarication and obfuscation.’

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The panel then amplifies or illustrates this ‘institutional corruption” term elsewhere in the report:

‘The family of Daniel Morgan suffered grievously as a consequence of the failure to bring his murderer(s) to justice, the unwarranted assurances which they were given, the misinformation which was put into the public domain, and the denial of the failings in investigation, including failing to acknowledge professional incompetence, individuals’ venal behaviour, and managerial and organisational failures.

‘The Metropolitan Police also repeatedly failed to take a fresh, thorough and critical look at past failings.

‘Concealing or denying failings, for the sake of the organisation’s public image, is dishonesty on the part of the organisation for reputational benefit and constitutes a form of institutional corruption.’

[…]

‘When failings in police investigations are combined with unjustified reassurances rather than candour on the part of the Metropolitan Police, this may constitute institutional corruption.

‘The Metropolitan Police’s culture of obfuscation and a lack of candour is unhealthy in any public service.

‘Concealing or denying failings, for the sake of the organisation’s public image, is dishonesty on the part of the organisation for reputational benefit.

‘In the Panel’s view, this constitutes a form of institutional corruption.’

[…]

‘Unwarranted assurances were given to the family, and the Metropolitan Police placed the reputation of the organisation above the need for accountability and transparency.

‘The lack of candour and the repeated failure to take a fresh, thorough and critical look at past failings are all symptoms of institutional corruption, which prioritises institutional reputation over public accountability.’

The report also provides explicit illustrative examples of institutional (as opposed to non-institutional) corruption on pages 1073-1075 of the pdf (page numbers 1069-1071).

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The report describes the careful consideration that went into defining both ‘corruption’ and ‘institutional corruption’.

The challenge, therefore, for those who wish to dismiss the finding of the independent panel that there was (and is) institutional corruption at the metropolitan police is either to deny the examples or to fault its definition and application.

It may be that some of those defending the metropolitan police see nothing (that) wrong in the internal solidarity and reputational protection that the panel describes as ‘institutional corruption’.

That it is not denied that bad things happened, but that they cannot be described as ‘institutional corruption’.

They may just not like such a term being used of such things.

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Given the care with which the panel considered and then defined (and then applied) the word ‘corruption’ that was expressly part of its terms of reference, any casual knee-jerk dismissal will not be sufficient.

A critic has to do better than to shake their head.

As I have set out in this Financial Times video, the panel have made out a substantial charge of ‘institutional corruption’ – and so this now requires an equally substantial response from the metropolitan police.

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16 thoughts on “The meaning of ‘institutional corruption’ – how the Daniel Morgan independent panel set about defining the term”

  1. My reading of this is that the panel invented a term ‘institutional corruption’ to allow it to report on the police’s obstruction of the inquiry.

    Do we know whether the panel adopted this term at the outset or was it something they did later on, when their inquiry was being frustrated?

    1. My reading of this is that the panel invented a term ‘institutional corruption’…

      That’s not how it was.

      The term “institutional corruption” is long established (https://www.google.com/search?client=opera&q=institutional+corruption&sourceid=opera&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8); the panel’s brief explicitly included the requirement to investigate it in the context of Daniel Morgan’s murder; and it is normal to define the scope and parameters of any such investigation, which the panel was extremely diligent in doing.

      1. The panel created its own definition for the term ‘institutional corruption’. It did so, because it wished to extend the term ‘corruption’, which was part of its terms of reference, to include the failings which it had defined to be ‘institutional corruption’.
        This is all set out in the report.

        1. because it wished to extend the term ‘corruption’

          It did the exact opposite of that.

          Placing a strict definition on what it considered to be “institutional corruption” had the explicit effect of limiting, weather than extending, what might be within the ambit of the report.

          (Yes, I’ve read it too…)

        1. Well, no – they simply limited the scope of their investigation by formally defining what should be considered in this context.

        2. No, James. The panel gave a specific definition for an existing concept, so they could apply it with precision.

          An analogy: most people will intuitively understand what “red” means with no further explanation, but I might want to say “electromagnetic radiation with a frequency between 625 and 740 nanometres” so I can be precise about what is red and what isn’t.

          What is your understanding of the concept of “institutional corruption” as it has been known and discussed in the several decades before the report was published?

          Can you explain what the panel’s definition includes but which would not be within previous understandings of the term, or indeed what they might have excluded but which should be within it?

  2. Excellent exposition and thorough reasoning as always from DAG.

    I have to ask myself whether the definition of institutional corruption, i.e.

    “‘The Metropolitan Police’s culture of obfuscation and a lack of candour is unhealthy in any public service.
    ‘Concealing or denying failings, for the sake of the organisation’s public image, is dishonesty on the part of the organisation for reputational benefit.
    ‘In the Panel’s view, this constitutes a form of institutional corruption.'”

    could ever reasonably and practically be applied to the Prime Minister, his office, the Cabinet, the Cabinet office, individual Ministers, political parties, and MP’s generally.

    Perhaps our institutions are corrupt because we are all as human beings corrupt in one way or another. Is human nature inherently corrupt?

  3. Two thoughts.
    1. I have yet to read the whole report but I wonder if it mentions “noble cause corruption” by name —- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noble_cause_corruption
    There is a lot to be teased out in this area, like how deal with it!
    2. One of the problems with the otherwise useful concept of institutional racism was – still is – that it tends to weaken individual accountability.

    1. If you search the PDF, the word “noble” appears just once, on page 1049, quoting Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb in her judgment in Rees & Ors v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis [2019] EWHC 2120 (Admin), para 53, in which she refers to the “egregious and shameful behaviour of a senior and experienced police officer” to justify awarding exemplary damages, and says “there is no place for any form of ‘noble-cause’ justification for corrupt practices in those trusted to uphold the law”.

      David has provide a link to the Morgan report, and here is that judgment to see it for yourself: https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2019/2339.html

    1. In volume 3 of the Report the Panel addresses institutional corruption inter alia at para 242. Then:

      “243. The Metropolitan Police’s lack of candour manifested itself in the hurdles placed in the path of the Panel, such as AC Cressida Dick’s initial refusal to recognise the necessity for the Panel to have access to HOLMES (the data system which provides safeguards for the
      integrity of investigations and also enables independent scrutiny to identify failures), as well
      as limiting access to the most sensitive information (which was not provided at the Panel’s secure premises and was only accessible at a location involving considerable travel time and precluding daily reference and crosschecking […].”

      Commissioner Cressida Dick after the Report’s publication:

      “I personally determined that the Met provided the Panel with the fullest level of co-operation in an open and transparent manner, with complete integrity at all times.”

      The Report:

      “71. The Panel has never received any reasonable explanation for the refusal over seven years by AC Cressida Dick and her successors to permit proper access to the HOLMES
      accounts to the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel. The consequential major delays to the
      Panel’s work, which inevitably added to the Panel’ costs, caused further unnecessary distress to the family of Daniel Morgan.”

      Assistant Commissioner Nick Ephgrave:

      “We have provided unparalleled access to material to the panel over a number of years.”

  4. Thank you David. In a world where a minister can avoid responsibility for a significant error by quipping that their tweet has not aged well (B Lewis on Marr re NI sea border today) we need your work.

  5. One question on my mind is which other public institutions would reasonably be understood to be guilty of this wide definition of institutional corruption, notably where it relates to a lack of candour motivated by a desire to protect the institution’s reputation?

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