The UK’s Praetorian Guards and Daniel Morgan’s Murder

A soldier of the Praetorian Guard, the army un...

A soldier of the Praetorian Guard, the army unit in which immunes were ranked. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the past few years we have been treated to a sorry spectacle in UK society. What we have seen is that those nominally called the guardians of the regime and the public interest, (the press, the politicians, and the police) have acted more as Praetorian Guards. Instead of protecting the public and the public interest from abuse, they have exploited them.

The problem, though, is not new. We find the same problems occurring under the decadent Roman Emperors. One could suggest that the decline in the press, police, and the politicians has occurred as the UK parliament has begun to resemble a royal court rather than a democratic parliament. Instead of fearing a presidential style politics, we should be considering the prime minister as an emperor in all but name. The parallels with imperial Rome are striking.

Who is today’s global delator?

The way the tabloid journalists, especially those at the News of the World, have operated reminds us of the ancient position of delator[1]. In Ancient Rome, the delator was an informer or informant. Today, the tabloid journalists, or their patron, have a similar role. They traffic in secret information often obtained illegally or through payments to informants. They trade information for financial, personal, or political profit. They also trade in it to harm people[2] and destroy reputations.[3]  Therein, we see how they can corrupt public guardians.[4] A junior police officer might traffic information for a financial gain. By contrast, a senior officer might traffic the information for political influence.[5] Even though one does it for financial profit and the other does it for political influence, both traffic information for the journalist. However, this only explains the role of the delator and how they corrupt the guardians. What we need to understand is how the guardians become praetorian guards

The Praetorian Guards only emerged with the modern media, the guardians always existed

The change from guardian to Praetorian Guard occurs slowly and less through intent and more from necessity. We can see this in the passage from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He pointed out that the power of the sword was important in imperial Rome, or any Monarchy. The leader would need to retain a military force to overawe their opponents and keep them from using military force if they could not defeat him politically.

Such formidable servants are always necessary, but often fatal to the throne of despotism. By thus introducing the Praetorian guards, as it were, into the palace and the senate, the emperors taught them to perceive their own strength, and the weakness of the civil government; to view the vices of their masters with familiar contempt, and to lay aside that reverential awe, which distance only, and mystery, can preserve towards an imaginary power. In the luxurious idleness of an opulent city, their pride was nourished by the sense of their irresistible weight; nor was it possible to conceal from them, that the person of the sovereign, the authority of the senate, the public treasure, and the seat of empire, were all in their hands. To divert the Praetorian bands from these dangerous reflections, the firmest and best established princes were obliged to mix blandishments with commands, rewards with punishments, to flatter their pride, indulge their pleasures, connive at their irregularities, and to purchase their precarious faith by a liberal donative; which, since the elevation of Claudius, was exacted as a legal claim, on the accession of every new emperor. (6)

Over time, though as politics has changed so that military force, the number of soldiers one controls determines who rules, ceased to be the mandate, the praetorian guards nature changed. They changed from a military role to a bureaucratic one. The bureaucracy, though, changed as the free press emerged. The media emerged in the last 20th century and early 21st century as the Praetorian Guard. In the UK, the PM and the ruling party always have a praetorian guard of attendants and subordinates. What is different is that the press and the police complete this function as they have become politicised and partisan. Like the Emperor, the PM develops the Praetorian Guard’s capacity and gives them favours to protect his political flank. All sides, the press, the politicians, and the police, serve served each other but at the public’s cost. The worst betrayal is that of the press as they are the only one who has a nominal responsibility for the public interest. The other two take an oath to the Crown and do not work strictly in the public interest. They serve the Crown not the public.

To control the Praetorian Guards the leader had to favour them

As Gibbon explained, the emperor protected himself in the short term and created a long term problem. In the UK, the political leadership’s relationship with the press and the police reached a crisis point. The relationship is not one that a future leader would dispose of or change lightly.[6] They would encourage and sustain the relationship for the advantages it provides and to avoid being consumed by it. History does not show any tyranny that has been overthrown, or government being voted out of power, without the succeeding government creating its own army, its own intelligence service, and its own police force. It may not create these literally, but a new government can chooses who will fill key posts or influence those office holders to encourage their supporters or allies and discourage their detractors or enemies.

The decision to ride the tiger for political gain sacrifices democracy to the delatores

What happened in in the UK, like imperial Rome, was that the initial bargain, to create the Praetorian guards, in this case the press and the police, became a victim of its own success. The police leadership developed its relationship with the press to act as their praetorian guards. The Commissioners who followed that initial decision soon saw the benefit simply as not being savaged by the monster they had created. Instead of serving the politicians, or the police, and by extension the public and the public interest, they each began to serve their own organisational interests.

The Praetorian Guard emerge as the press stop guarding the public interest

When the praetorian guards started to feel their own power, the public began to see the problem clearly. What might have happened to an individual was now happening to society.  In terms of the police, we can see such power exercised at Hillsborough. The police doctored police statements and thwarted the search for truth as they preferred their organisational interests over the public. The thin blue line served to protect the police not the victims. The police were aided and abetted by a press unable and unwilling to pursue the truth. The politicians who benefitted from the press and the police refused to challenge them. The press shifted attention from the police as they blamed the victims. The press published lies and calumnies. The mood at the time was that anyone who spoke up against these lies condoned such alleged crimes and condemned the unimpeachable character of the police who uphold law and order. However, Hillsborough marked a turning point.[7]

Phone hacking becomes a firestorm as social media challenges the press.

Even though social media did not exist, the social community, the Liverpool fans and families, kept the story alive. They formed a prototypical social network. When social media became available, they were able to create the pressure needed for a new public inquiry.[8] However, that was not the visible turning point. Instead, it was the tabloid press, embolden by the Hillsborough lie that began to display the more extreme behaviour. We see this culminating in the way the News of the World (NOTW) went to extremes for scoops. This reaches its pinnacle when NOTW is caught hacking the phones including the Royal Family. However, the public did not become aware of their depravity until they found that instead of politicians, celebrities or other “public figures” they have turned on the public–NOTW hacks the phone of a dead child. The result is the Leveson Inquiry. However, the story is not complete. There remains a third part to explore—the Murder of Daniel Morgan.

Daniel Morgan’s Murder the one that started it all.

In the UK, the Hillsborough showed us the police as Praetorian Guards. The Leveson Inquiry showed us the press as Praetorian Guards and their relationship with politicians. What remains is the third part, the relationship of police and press in the Daniel Morgan Murder. The Independent Panel’s purpose is to look at the background to the case and the way the police handled it. In particular, the police corruption that thwarted the investigation and how the News of the World’s was involved.

The murder of Daniel Morgan in March 1987 was a personal tragedy for Daniel’s family. In the intervening 26 years, there have been five successive police investigations but no one has been successfully prosecuted or convicted for the murder; and in March 2011 the Metropolitan Police acknowledged “the repeated failure of the MPS to confront the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible for the murder from being brought to justice”.

What is at issue, in terms of the Praetorian Guards, is the way that police and press intersected. The ex-police officers who conducted the illegal surveillance for the press and the way the press relied on them for their material. The problem, though, is that the material they collected was not only for curiosity, it served an institutional purpose. The News of the World used its journalists and its resources to research its political opponents.[9] The review will look at the way the press and the police were involved and how police corruption undermined the murder investigation.

  • police involvement in the murder;
  • 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 incidence of connections between private investigators, police officers and journalists at the News of the World and other parts of the media and alleged corruption involved in the linkages between them.

The three inquiries, although much will depend on the Daniel Morgan Murder Panel’s success, will have shown us much of the way the Praetorian Guards have operated. They will give us an insight into the way politics is conducted, which suggests blackmail and political intimidation is the norm rather than the exception, and the public domain is patrolled by the media in its role as a Praetorian Guard rather than a public guardian.[10]


[1] (accessed 13 October 2014)

“Being a delator could be a lucrative, but much despised profession under the Roman emperors. The delator was an informer or informant. Delatores (the Latin plural of delator) were despised for bringing forth trumped-up charges and adversely affecting freedom of speech. Often a delator was paid by the emperor for the accusations. Delatores were sometimes paid a fee and sometimes a set portion of the victim’s fine. Money confiscated also went into the imperial treasury.

The people who were accused by the delator were mostly those of the senatorial class, so it is not surprising that the emperors especially associated with the delatores were those otherwise disliked by senatorial class writers, Pliny, Cassius Dio, Suetonius, and Tacitus.”

Perhaps this explains why Tom Watson, an MP, took exception to the behaviour by the News of the World as they appear to be acting as delators against his patron.

[2] The case of Eric Cullen shows how the police and the press can cooperate in the name of the public interest to destroy a life.

[3] As Rebekah Brookes told the Leveson Inquiry “It’s not fair to say politicians live in fear of newspapers … MPs don’t scare easily.” The point that is overlooked is that one cannot know that unless you have tried to scare an MP. Or as Greg Miskiw said “That is what we do – we go out and destroy other people’s lives”. You may not want these people as your enemy but would you want them as your friend?

[4] The practice violates the Nolan Principles of public service.–2  The principles are listed here:

  1. Selflessness
  2. Integrity
  3. Objectivity
  4. Accountability
  5. Openness
  6. Honesty
  7. Leadership

[5] One would only find senior officers of a crude or vulgar disposition seeking financial profit from the relationship. The human nature of public servants often displays a weakness for financial rewards for private pleasures that public service does not appear to provide.

[6] In many ways, the tools and techniques to manage this relationship is the best way to describe the arcana imperii  see also



[9] Consider the evidence that they used Sourthern Investigations to gather evidence on senior police officers.

[10] Consider the way that the press can use its public interest mantel to investigate anyone, especially if they enter the public domain. One could suggest that the goal has been to protect the establishment from challenge. However, that would require a longer paper to explore.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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