Comment

Analaysis: Motorman. Britain’s other massive press scandal

1204_charlotte_church

Private detective Steve Whittamore supplied information about celebrities such as Charlotte Church to Fleet Street.

Everyone in Britain knows about the News of the World phone hacking scandal, and most people know that at its heart is a collection of documents and computer files assembled by the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. Buried by police in 2007, these records have been laboriously dragged to the surface by journalists and lawyers, and they have revealed outrageous illegal behaviour. The Mulcaire files, in other words, have done untold damage to Rupert Murdoch’s organisation.

What if there was another such collection of records, compiled by another private investigator, containing records of potentially illegal activities not only by News International newspapers, but also by the Daily Mail, the Mirror, the Express – indeed most of Fleet Street? That would surely be political dynamite.

Remarkably, such a collection exists and it is indeed dynamite, but even more remarkably it remains largely buried by a combination of official secrecy and press industry cover-up. Even though Britain has an Information Commissioner tasked with protecting the public from the abuse of our data and even though it has a public inquiry under Lord Justice Leveson dedicated to investigating press misconduct, these files remain closed.

They are called the Operation Motorman files, a cache of documents seized in 2003 in a raid by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) on the offices and home of the private investigator Steve Whittamore.

For years, Whittamore and a small group of associates had provided newspaper clients with a range of services from entirely innocent research into public databases such as the electoral rolls to illegally accessing the Police National Computer with the assistance of corrupt officials.

Whittamore kept reasonably good records. For each transaction he logged the date, the name of the newspaper and the journalist who commissioned him, the target individual, the kind of information required and (sometimes) the fee charged. These – at least 17,500 of them – the ICO copied into computer spreadsheets, in separate files known as the Blue Book (mostly News International), the Red Book (Mirror Group) and the Yellow and Green books (including the Mail and the Mail on Sunday, the Express Group, the Observer and a number of magazines)….

Whittamore and some of his associates were convicted in 2005, but none of the journalists who had commissioned the work ever faced charges. Could they have done so? Undoubtedly yes. It is illegal to hire a private eye to acquire data from, for example, the Police National Computer, the car registration (DVLA) database, and the British Telecom database of people’s ‘Friends & Family’ (or most-dialled) numbers, and we know that the Motorman files show many such transactions.

The law states that journalists who pay for this kind of information do not break the law if they show that the action was justified in the public interest. Exactly what that means may be subject to some argument, but it emphatically does not include acquiring information in the pursuit of stories about the private lives of celebrities, their relatives or the victims of crime and their families.

In 2005-6 the ICO took the view that they could have prosecuted many journalists but didn’t have the money for the fight. (There has also been a claim that it backed off because it feared the press, though this has been hotly disputed.) Instead it fired two shots across the bows of the press in the form of reports entitled What Price Privacy? and What Price Privacy Now?

These reports laid down the law and warned newspapers to stop breaking it. The second report also contained a list of the leading users of Whittamore’s services. The Daily Mail was at the top with 952 transactions commissioned by 58 journalists. The Mirror papers were also big users and the list also included Express and News International titles, the Observer and a number of magazines.

Needless to say the reports were barely reported in the papers themselves, but the ICO believes that they had the desired effect: it says it has no evidence that the illegal practices continue today.  And the press industry desperately wants us to believe that too.

But it doesn’t end there. The hacking scandal has raised many new questions about the Motorman files. When the hacking scandal came to light it was natural to ask not only whether other newspapers have been involved in hacking voicemails, but also what other illegal information gathering had been going on. Newspaper proprietors and executives outside News International were quick to tell us that their hands were clean.

But the ICO left little doubt that their hands were dirty. Its 2006 report showed 305 journalists commissioning more than 3,000 inquiries from Whittamore and the Information Commissioner of the time, Richard Thomas, declared: “I have not seen a whiff of public interest.” Thomas has also argued that some of these offences were at least as serious as phone hacking, not less so.

Moreover, the ICO made clear that there were many, many victims of these offences, often blameless people caught in the media war against personal privacy and often people who lost control of precious personal information without even knowing it.

At the Leveson inquiry, however, the newspapers – the Mail, Express, Mirror etc – have so far got away with it. They have not been asked in detail whether they could justify all those known, potentially illegal transactions, so they are still able to say that nobody has proved anything against them. And worse, the Motorman files themselves – shared between lawyers, editors and newspaper executives – were not disclosed to the public so that we could judge these matters for ourselves.

Nor, of course, have the national press exposed the story. The papers splurged the evidence of MPs’ expenses abuse, but they hide their own wrongdoings.

The press argues that disclosure would not be fair, and that Motorman is all in the past, yet Motorman is no more historic than hacking. Indeed there are surely grounds to wonder whether the mobile phone numbers that Whittamore was so often asked to collect were then used for hacking.

And even after Whittamore was convicted in 2005, long after Operation Motorman, newspapers continued to use his services. The Mail has admitted employing him in 2007, and the Express employed him as recently as July 2010.

Motorman is the press scandal that is still being covered up.

This article was first published in OpenDemocracy.