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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.
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
Former police officer and TV presenter Jacqui Hames, who was put under surveillance in 2002 by the News of the World, gave an emotional account to the Leveson Inquiry today, describing the “great anxiety” caused by the intrusion.
The former police officer, who joined Crimewatch in 1990, explained she could not think of any reason why the News of the World would put her and her then husband under investigation, but suspected that real reason for the surveillance was her police officer husband’s involvement in the investigation of the murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan. Hames suggested that the News of the World wanted to derail the case.
Hames tearfully explained how information obtained by Glenn Mulcaire could only have been gathered from her personnel file, suggesting she had been “sold down the line” by someone in the police force. Upon seeing the information in Mulcaire’s notebooks including her payroll and warrant numbers, along with previous police accommodation, Hames recalled being “shocked” and “angry”.
She began saying: “As a police officer you learn to compartmentalise, you put your private and public life into two different places.” Lord Justice Leveson encouraged her to stop as she became visibly upset, commenting “the cause of this inquiry is not to aggravate the distress caused.”
She added: “I think sometimes it’s easier to dismiss certain people because they should be able to put up with it, but I don’t believe anyone should have to put up with it and that’s why I came here today and stuck my head above the parapet.”
As a former police officer and with her presenting role on BBC TV programme Crimewatch, Hames felt she had been able to “see the media from the inside”, allowing her to undertake her current role as a media trainer for detectives. In her statement to the inquiry, she suggested enhanced media training for police officers at all levels of the force.
Hames advised the court that it was possible for police officers to have a relationship with journalists, while retaining professional integrity. She added “there’s no reason not to if you are open and honest.”
Liberal Democrat MP and phone-hacking victim Simon Hughes described an “unforgivable” failure by police to investigate the extent of phone hacking during his evidence.
Appearing before the hearing, Hughes told the court it was clear from 2006 that staff at the highest level knew the full extent of News of the World payments to Glennn Mulcaire, and described the lack of investigation from police regarding this as a “completely unacceptable failure”.
Hughes described being “frustrated even now” that action wasn’t taken in 2006. He said: “If there had been robust action in 2006 a lot of the illegal action might have been shut down and a lot of the people who are now known to be victims might not be victims or might not have suffered as much.”
During the prosecution of Glenn Mulcaire, Hughes was not told by the police the private investigator had obtained his phone number and secret office “hotline”, information the MP had tried to keep under wraps, following his involvement as a witness in a murder case.
In 2011, during a meeting with officers from Operation Weeting, Hughes said he was shown pages from Glenn Mulcaire’s notebooks, along with other evidence, including transcripts of telephone calls, his home address and phone numbers. In the notebooks, there were three names of News of the World employees.
“The police showed me the pages [from Mulcaire’s notebooks], they asked me to identify what I could. They indicated there may be in this book some names of other people with whom Mr Mulcaire was working … They opened the issue without leading me to the answer.”
Hughes also explained that during the 2006 Liberal Democrat leadership campaign, his office was contacted by a journalist from The Sun regarding a “private matter”. In a meeting with the journalist, Hughes was advised that the newspaper had acquired records of telephone calls made by the MP, relating to his sexuality. Following an interview with the tabloid, The Sun ran the article “outing” Hughes.
Previous to the media speculation around his sexuality, Hughes described being “odds on favourite” to win the leadership vote, and described a “direct impact between that revelation, press coverage and my political reputation.”
Hughes described complaining to his mobile phone provider of “a systemic failure” with regards to his voicemail, after messages he knew had been left were unavailable, and after occasions when his voicemails were completely inaccessible.
The MP also discussed the “unhealthy relationship” between the press and politicians: “I understood how influential tabloids became, saw the desperate effort of party leaders to gain favour with media. I regarded it increasingly unhealthy.”
Hughes added that he believed scrutiny of politicians in the media is important: “Of course we have to engage with the media, and we should be subject to their scrutiny. I’m not asking for a less robust press and less active engagement, but there shouldn’t be people going in through the back door of Downing Street. We need to have a system which is transparent, and open and we know the score.”
Guardian journalist Nick Davies returned to the hearing to give a lively testimony for the second module of the inquiry.
Davies explained that often official police sources prefer quotes to remain unattributed, his definition of “off the record”. He said: “90 per cent of the work I do is off the record. Certainly that includes officially authorised interviews with police officers. It really isn’t sinister. I think the immediate fear that a police officer has when they sit down with a journalist is that they will be misquoted. Off the record eliminates that.”
The journalist described the risks of closing down all communication between journalists and police, comparing it to saying “I got food poisoning last night, I am never going to eat again,” but stressed the importance of “getting to the bottom of what went wrong with official flow of information” relating to phone hacking, describing it as “catastrophic.”
He added: “it isn’t that official sources are inherently good or that unofficial sources are inherently bad. Don’t identify unidentified sources as the cause of the problem. It would be a mistake to say off the record is the source of the problem, it’s not sinister, it helps people to tell the truth.”
Branding the self regulation and media law in this country as “useless”, Davies suggested taking the Freedom of Information act as a theoretical model: “all info should be disclosed unless it is covered by the following exemptions. I’d like to see the same model for the police. Why not be open? It helps avoid abuse.”
Davies added that it was not an ethical worry for a police commissioner to meet with newspaper editors to talk about policy, or specific cases, but that it became an issue if “we now discover it was an active ingredient in the subsequent failure to investigate News of the World.”
Chris Jefferies also appeared before the hearing for a second time. Jefferies, who was wrongly arrested on suspicion of murdering his tenant Joanna Yeates in 2010, described a pique in media interest following his second statement to the police in December of that year.
He said: “until then I had not been the subject of any particular media attention but that suddenly changed. A Sky news team were extremely anxious to talk to me, a large number of reporters and photographer’s appeared at the address where I lived. They had somehow got to hear about that second statement, and they were extremely anxious to hear if I believed I had seen Jo Yeates leaving the property on the 17th December with one or other people.”
He added: “There was feverish interest in talking to me and fact it happened day before arrest was remarkable to me.”
In a very measured response, Jefferies added that reports that police had said he was “their man”, was “not be beyond the bounds of possibility that the police might want to give the impression of considerable confidence, that a considerable step forward had been taken in the investigation.”
Jefferies suggested that it should be a “far more serious offence” for police who disclose inappropriate information to the press.
In his witness statement, Jefferies said: “It is my very firm view that it must be considered a far more serious offence than it currently is for police to disclose inappropriate information to members of the press and that to do so should be an imprisonable offence, subject to a public interest defence.”
The Metropolitan police’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner told the Leveson Inquiry this morning that Operation Elveden has revealed there was “a culture at the Sun of illegal payments while hiding the identity of the officials”.
Discussing the recent arrests of journalists at the tabloid over alleged improper payments, Sue Akers said that payments to sources were openly referred to within the Sun, and that one official has been paid more than £80,000 over a number of years, while another journalist received £150,000 over a period to pay a source.
Akers said Operation Elveden, which investigates payments to police officers, revealed a “network of corrupted officials”, and that payments were made not only to police officers but wide range of public officials across the military, prisons, police and health departments. Akers added that were was a “tradecraft” of hiding cash payments by making them to a source’s friend or relative, a practice that was authorised at a “senior level” at the paper.
The revelations were made as the Leveson Inquiry began its second module, which examines the relationship between the press and the police.
In a dramatic morning, Inquiry counsel Robert Jay QC discussed an email from ex-News International legal manager Tom Crone to former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, which revealed that Coulson was told in 2006 that there were over £1 million of payments to private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, and that Mulcaire had hacked hundreds of phones.
The email, based on a briefing that Crone had been told by then Sun editor Rebekah Brooks, showed that Brooks was aware the police had found evidence of News International’s payments to Mulcaire, and that police had asked her whether she “wanted to take it [the investigation] further”.
It was revealed that after the 2006 arrest of Mulcaire and former News of the World royal reporter Clive Goodman, the police realised that there were hundreds of individuals who had been targeted for hacking, yet argued that counter-terrorism was more important than investigating the practice.
In his opening remarks, Jay said the relationship between News International and the Metropolitan police was “at best inappropriately close, and if not actually corrupt, very close to it.”
He added that there was an “obvious risk when two powerful organisations come into contact” arguing that there was scope for “self-interest” and that it “does not take many rotten apples to undermine the whole body politic.” Jay cited that risks might include off the record briefings with an “obvious lack of transparency” and the attribution of stories to police sources who may not in fact be police sources.
Lord Justice Leveson also made a thinly-veiled rebuttal of remarks made by education secretary Michael Gove that the Inquiry had had a chilling effect on the British press.
Leveson argued that criticism of the Inquiry was “troubling”, and that the inquiry itself had “done no more than follow its mandated terms of reference”.
In a speech to journalists at Westminster last week, Gove claimed there was now a “chilling atmosphere towards freedom of expression which emanates from the debate around Leveson”.
“I do not believe the inquiry was or is premature, and I intend to continue to do neither more nor less than was required of me,” Leveson said.
He reiterated his belief in freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but said journalism must obey the “rule of law” and act in the public interest. He said he was “not interested” in becoming an arbiter of what a free press should look like.
Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson
The Guardian has revealed that the News of the World hacked Sara Payne’s phone, which Rebekah Brooks had given her as a gift.
Payne had previously been told, accurately, that her name did not appear in Glenn Mulcaire’s notes, but her personal details were found there on Tuesday. The News of the World used its final issue to congratulate itself for its campaign for Sarah’s law.
Sara Payne herself wrote a column for the farewell edition, describing the News of the World reporters as her “good and trusted friends.” Tom Watson MP has decried this as “a whole new low”; and Sara Payne has said that she is “absolutely devastated and deeply disappointed.”
Read Brian Cathcart’s writing on the phone hacking scandal here.