Leveson: Time to lift the lid on Motorman

Cross-posted at Hacked Off

There is an open secret at the Leveson Inquiry. The judge knows it; the lawyers all know it; the witnesses from the press — including the editors — all know it. In fact only one significant party is kept in the dark: the public in whose name the Inquiry acts.

And it’s not a small secret but a huge one, an entire database relating to illegal activity carried out at the behest of journalists working for national newspapers over a number of years. Occasionally it is mentioned in public evidence at the inquiry, almost always in vague and general terms. Yet there is nothing vague about it; it brims with detail.

It names journalists who commissioned thousands of actions which they must or should have known were, on the face of it, illegal. It records dates and payments for these transactions. It identifies the members of the public who were targets of this activity — thousands of them, although only a handful have been told it happened.

This secret has been secret too long, and the prevailing situation at the inquiry, of nudge-nudge-wink-wink exclusive knowledge, cannot be justified legally or morally. The only beneficiaries are journalists who have done wrong and their employers, and a public inquiry into press conduct has no business covering up wrongdoing by journalists.

It is time the Motorman files were made public. They should be redacted to protect the privacy of the victims but otherwise they should be published in their entirety and in a way that clearly shows which journalists commissioned what activities for which newspapers at what prices. Then let journalists and newspapers justify their actions if they can.

What are the Motorman files?

Motorman was an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2003 into the activities of Steve Whittamore, a private investigator who for years ran a lucrative business providing press clients with addresses, phone numbers, car registrations and other information. Some of this information was legally available and some not: there is no legal way of acquiring records from the Police National Computer, the DVLA or BT’s ‘friends and family‘ database.

Though Whittamore and three associates were eventually convicted, no journalist or newspaper was prosecuted. That decision has been challenged and defended many times and the argument is now a barren one. There is no public interest today in prosecuting journalists for commissioning Whittamore and it will not happen; there is, however, a compelling public interest in the fullest possible disclosure of the files.

Yet when Hacked Off asked the Leveson Inquiry and the Information Commissioner’s Office to redact and publish them, they both said no.

In the past, the Information Commissioner has revealed that 305 journalists working for 32 publications generated 17,000 purchase orders with Whittamore in the years up to 2003. Many were innocent but several thousand involved prima facie breaches of the law.

Breaking the Data Protection Act can be justified if it is done in the public interest, to uncover wrongdoing, say, or to prevent crime. Some newspapers say their reporters acted for reasons of that kind but the Information Commissioner said most stories were so trivial they could never qualify as in the public interest. Either way, the newspapers’ sweeping claims that they did nothing illegal have never been tested.

Why now?

We need disclosure now, during the Leveson Inquiry, because otherwise the files will be buried forever. We need it because almost every national newspaper group is implicated and it is time they explained themselves, revealing their public interest justifications in detail where they have any. And we need it because it is inevitable that some of those 305 journalists are today in senior positions at national newspapers.

Above all we need disclosure because the Motorman files go to the heart of the Leveson mission, which is to examine the culture, practice and ethics of the press, and because it is wrong that information relating to wrongdoing is kept from the public when it has been shared between the lawyers and the implicated news organisations — as it definitely has been.

What are the arguments against publication? First, let us dispense with the weakest: that this database is so vast that redacting it for publication is too much work. Not so. The Information Commissioner’s Office itself has estimated that the job would take between 15 and 30 staff days.

Next is the argument that, because newspapers say they have stopped using Whittamore, Motorman is ancient history and thus irrelevant to the Inquiry. There is an inconsistency here: nobody publicly suggests that journalists are still hacking mobile phone voicemails and yet that is clearly relevant.

In fact, the cases of Steve Whittamore and the hacker Glenn Mulcaire are remarkably similar. Mulcaire was arrested in 2006 and it is clear he began hacking in 2002 or earlier — when Whittamore’s business was at its peak. Both investigators worked closely with newsdesks to penetrate the privacy of large numbers of people by illegal means. Yet Mulcaire’s journalist clients are subject to rigorous criminal investigation while the identity of Whittamore’s journalist clients is being officially protected.

It might be argued that to publish the full list of journalists’ names would unfairly lump the innocent in with the guilty. Reporters and editors who never did more than pay Whittamore to consult an open, public database will appear alongside those who asked him for people’s criminal records.

There may be embarrassment for some journalists, but remember there is no danger of prosecution here. What matters most, as with phone hacking, is that the scale and character of the scandal is fully understood and that today’s editors and news executives, some of whom have insisted that they and their papers never broke the law, should be subject to informed public scrutiny. This is very similar to the justification for publishing all of the data on MPs’ expenses, even though only a minority of MPs had broken the law.

Finally, while it is vital that victims’ identities should be redacted from the files (they should be identified only in classes, such as “a television presenter”, “a victim of crime”, “a police officer” etc) it is equally vital that victims should be informed of what happened. This process — which is a matter of right — is under way in the hacking scandal; it is even more overdue in the Motorman affair and should begin as soon as possible.


If you agree that the Motorman file should be redacted and published as a matter of priority, please write to the Leveson inquiry saying so. The address is: [email protected]. Please copy your email to the Information Commissioner’s Office: [email protected]

Brian Cathcart, a founder of Hacked Off, teaches journalism at Kingston University London. He tweets at @BrianCathcart

Trevor Kavanagh, the Sun and press freedom

The Sun’s associate editor Trevor Kavanagh has launched a stirring attack on the police in this morning’s paper. When Kavanagh lays out of what happened over the weekend, it’s hard not to agree that this looks like an assault on the press by an overzealous police force. While there is a criminal investigation ongoing and the police will need to talk to people, dawn raids at the weekend seem excessive and intimidatory.

Brian Cathcart suggests:

“As for the [Metropolitan Police], it is doing its job. It may well be doing it with a special zeal, in response to criticisms about a previous absence of zeal, but we can hardly complain about that either. “

I think I can complain, if I’m honest. The Met’s embarrassment over past unwillingness to investigate phonehacking does not give it licence to act disproportionately now, and journalists being roused from their beds by police is a bit too close for comfort to the kind of events we at Index cover and campaign on in the less free world. Moreover, one can’t help feel this is all part of an attempt to show willing ahead of the Leveson Inquiry’s scrutiny of the relations between police and the press, due to begin at the end of February.

Kavanagh correctly points out that “illegal” practices take part across the media. As Index noted in our submission to the Leveson Inquiry, these practices can be justified if there is a public interest and a clear line of accountability within the publication.

He then notes that the UK rates below Slovakia, Poland and Estonia in press freedom. The post-Soviet countries the UK is behind are not exactly Belarus or Turkmenistan, or indeed Russia, but Kavanagh is technically correct on this. The rating comes from Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) annual Press Freedom Index. The RSF report comments:

Against the extraordinary backdrop of the News of the World affair, the United Kingdom (28th) caused concern with its approach to the protection of privacy and its response to the London riots. Despite universal condemnation, the UK also clings to a surreal law that allows the entire world to come and sue news media before its courts.

The “surreal law” referred to is English defamation law, while the “approach to privacy” is the fondness for the judicial injunction displayed by those who seek to stifle stories about them, not, as one might read it, the tendency of certain gentlemen of the press to listen to people’s voice messages.

While it may be tempting to aim a dismissive “calm down, dear” at Kavanagh, we should not pretend that there are no press freedom issues at stake in this country.

The Sun, the baby and the bathwater

Cross-posted at Hacked Off

There is fury and fear among Sun staff after the latest round of arrests by police investigating the alleged corruption of public servants by journalists, and there is more widespread alarm about the future of the press. Where will this end? Will other papers close, as the News of the World did? Is the baby of free expression about to go down the plughole with the murky bathwater of journalistic misconduct?

The anxiety is likely to increase as Rupert Murdoch visits London this week. Though he has said he has no intention of closing the Sun, he is not (how to put this?) a man distinguished by the rigid keeping of his word. It is easy to see why nerves are frayed.

But the picture is not as bleak as some fear, and News International and the Metropolitan police are only doing what they have to do in a society ruled by law. (We need to note, too, that nobody has been charged with anything.)

It is only a few months since News International was rightly lambasted for covering up evidence of, and information about, potentially criminal activities. That material, about phone hacking, had to be dragged out of the company, notably by civil litigants who for the most part have now settled their cases.

If, as seems to be the case, the company is now diligently searching its databases and handing everything suspicious that it finds to the police, then we should be grateful. Nor can we complain that junior figures are suffering the consequences while the top brass are spared: those arrested (and bailed) are for the most part big hitters.

As for the Met, it is doing its job. It may well be doing it with a special zeal, in response to criticisms about a previous absence of zeal, but we can hardly complain about that either. And it is not as though it can make up new laws. Where they have information about possible breaches of the law the police are supposed to investigate, question, search and so forth, and that is what they are doing here.

Corrupting officials matters, too. If local government officials take bribes to fix planning applications for builders, or if defence officials take bribes when awarding arms contracts, we expect prosecutions of both those who pay and those who receive. More than that, we expect the press to expose such wrongdoing, and journalists tend to take pride in the work. Corruption creates injustice and is anti-democratic.

Will the pursuit of these matters lead to unwanted consequences? Will it corrode free expression? I cant see why.

There are no grounds for Murdoch to close the Sun, and if he were to do so it would be another short-sighted, cowardly and capricious act like the closure of the News of the World.  He has to take responsibility, show leadership and steer his paper (which is by any measure a national institution) through the crisis.

Does it follow that other papers are in danger? I have no idea, but if journalists on other papers have been bribing public officials (something which nobody can fail to realise is against the law) then they need to face the consequences. It is no use saying that the law is wrong or unfair; if that is the case the right course is to try to change the law, not to ignore it. (Newspapers are rarely tolerant of others who consider themselves above the law.)

The bathwater of unethical and illegal practices in journalism needs to be drained, and the Leveson process exists to do that. There is no reason to suppose that the baby of free expression will be washed away in the process. A far more realistic prospect is that, if we are persuaded to leave this bathwater where it is, the baby will drown in it. Corrupt journalism is the enemy of free expression; it places us at the mercy of monopolists, bullies and lawbreakers. We surely don’t want that.

Brian Cathcart, a founder of Hacked Off, teaches journalism at Kingston University London. He tweets at @BrianCathcart

In praise of the hacked — civil litigants exposed News International

Crossposted at Hacked Off 

After two years of foot-dragging, nit-picking, hair-splitting and general obfuscation, News International has finally done the right thing in the civil litigation about phone hacking. It has put its hands up and agreed to compensate all but a few of the remaining victims who were suing it.

So this is a moment to pay tribute to all of those civil litigants, famous and obscure. We should honour them for their courage in challenging not only the might of Rupert Murdoch’s company, but the whole tabloid press, which was so eager to help keep Murdoch’s dirty linen hidden. And we should also honour them for prising open this huge can of worms when the entire establishment was determined to keep it shut.

There is talk of a new royal yacht for the queen’s diamond jubilee; perhaps before 2012 is out we should also have a handsome monument to the civil litigants as a gesture of thanks from a grateful nation. It could take the form of a giant tin-opener, and a location in Fleet Street might be appropriate.

These people changed everything. Without them the “one rogue reporter” lie would probably still be the official line from both News International and the Metropolitan Police. Rebekah Brooks would still be in her job, the ghastly Colin Myler would be editing the News of the World, Andy Coulson would be in 10 Downing Street and the press would still be telling us the PCC was an effective regulator.

A whole industry of deception, in other words, has crumbled thanks to the people compensated today and thanks to their predecessors who settled earlier, notably Sienna Miller.

And pathetic though News International’s legal defence has been lately, suing was never easy for the claimants. Think of the risks they exposed themselves to.

Back in 2010 when many of these cases began life, every politician knew that the Sun and the News of the World could wreck their reputations, and that these papers had more access to the prime minister (and his two predecessors) than any backbencher and most ministers. Suing probably looked like political suicide to most MPs.

Across television, cinema and sport, from Hollywood to India, News Corporation owns or controls far more than any other company, so if you were an actress, a sportsman, a football agent or a PR person you risked much more than your time and money by suing — you risked your livelihood.

As for ordinary people whose phones had been hacked, you might think they had nothing to lose by suing, but think again: this is a company that employed private investigators on an industrial scale. Would you be happy to have every aspect of your private life secretly investigated, and if the slightest blemish was found — perhaps involving a vulnerable relative — to have that exposed in the press?

So it took courage for these people to sue, and collectively they made the difference between News International escaping scot free and what we have now: substantial police investigations, a couple of dozen arrests, and the historic and far-reaching Leveson Inquiry.

If they can’t have a monument on Fleet Street, then what about MBEs all round?

Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and is a founder of Hacked Off. He tweets at @BrianCathcart