Free speech? Not when a newspaper sets a private eye on a journalist

Cross-posted at Hacked Off

Peter Hill was editor of the Daily Express for seven years, from the end of 2003 to early 2011. Among his claims to fame is that he edited the newspaper throughout the Madeleine McCann affair in 2007-8, overseeing coverage that led to a £550,000 libel pay-out by the group and to grovelling front-page apologies.

Before he became its editor the Express had made its mark in the Motorman files, with seven of its journalists listed by the Information Commissioner as having employed the private investigator Steve Whittamore 36 times to carry out searches or inquiries.

But when Hill appeared before the Leveson inquiry in January, he did so after writing in a sworn statement: “I am not aware of ever having used a private investigator at the Daily Express.” Giving evidence under oath, he also declared: “I didn’t follow any of those practices. The regime completely changed when I became the editor.”

Another answer was less categorical, however. Hill was asked: “Is it your evidence that a number of people left, and therefore, because they left, you could be sure that private investigators were no longer being used? Or is it your evidence that you have no idea at all as to whether private investigators were ever used?” He replied: “I have no idea.”

Consider now the evidence to the inquiry of Nicole Patterson, the Express group’s legal chief. She said that after 2005 (and therefore when Hill was in charge at the Express) the papers had made use of no fewer than five companies in the field of data acquisition, of which one was Whittamore’s firm, JJ Services. In 2005 alone, she revealed, the papers spent £110,700 with these five firms, and though she said she saw no evidence of illegality it is not clear how closely she looked.

Besides answering questions at the inquiry, Patterson submitted documents giving details of the use of private investigators and search agencies by the Express papers. Those documents have not been made public, though some were displayed on screens at the hearings and seen by reporters.

The veteran investigative reporter Mark Hosenball has been able to piece together some details of these transactions in an article for Reuters. Notable among these is the case of ‘P Wilby’.

Peter Wilby is a former editor of the Independent on Sunday and the New Statesman and is now an award-winning comment writer. On 17 September 2007, in an article for the Guardian about the McCann case, he referred to the Daily Express as “a hopeless newspaper that couldn’t tell you the time of day”.

A cheap shot, you might say, but no more. Yet it appears to have had consequences, for according to Hosenball the Patterson documents “show that in September 2007 the Express group paid £963.50 to JJ Services [Whittamore] for information on ‘P Wilby’. This is an apparent reference to Peter Wilby. . .”

“According to the records,” Hosenball continued, “the payment was made shortly after Wilby published an article in the Guardian castigating British newspapers, including the Daily Express, for excesses in their coverage of the saga of Madeleine McCann. . .”

Wilby himself has written about this and is not inclined to make a fuss, but on the basis of Patterson’s public evidence we can say that £963,50 must have been a relatively large payment. Most payments to Whittamore and others in this period were for less than £100, she said. In other evidence it emerged that in 2007 Whittamore charged a daily rate of £240, so £960 would have neatly bought four whole days of investigating time, with the £3.50 added on for stationery perhaps.

If ‘P Wilby’ is indeed Peter Wilby (and it would be a remarkable coincidence if two people called P Wilby crossed the path of the Express in those same few days in 2007), then what we have here is a national newspaper commissioning a private investigator (and convicted criminal) to do four days work, or the equivalent in value, on a distinguished journalist.

Stop and think about that. The Express trades on criticism, frequently dishing out abuse worse than Wilby’s and often in a meaner spirit. The paper would say it has a right to do so. But what happens to someone who criticises the Express? It seems the critic gets investigated, and what could be the objective of such an investigation if not to find some means of demeaning or silencing him?

The paper had the right to criticise, in short, but no one had the right to criticise the paper.

Is there any evidence that the Express took such grave exception to Wilby’s jibe? It so happens that there is. On 19 September 2007, two days after the article appeared, the Guardian’s Media Monkey gossip column reported the following:

‘The Guardian has been banned from the offices of the Daily Express after editor Peter Hill blew his top over a column by Peter Wilby in Monday’s MediaGuardian section. . . Mr Hill has responded by banning the morning delivery of 18 copies of the Guardian to the Express offices on the banks of the Thames near Tower Bridge.” Monkey’s man on the inside explained: “He was deeply offended by a thoughtless remark by Peter Wilby, especially as the latter had met him only a couple of weeks previously and had been perfectly cordial. . .”

So this is what we know: on 17 September 2007 Wilby had a go at the Express in print; on 19 September Hill was reported to be so “deeply offended” that he banned the Guardian from the Express offices; ‘shortly after’ the Wilby jibe, someone at the Express commissioned Whittamore to carry out almost £1,000 worth of work on Wilby.

Two questions leap to mind. First, what was Whittamore commissioned to do? No article appeared in the paper subsequently to give any clue. Could he or an employee of his have spent four days engaged in entirely innocent inquiries about Wilby? By Patterson’s account the Express only employed investigators to do jobs journalists would not normally do, so we can presumably rule out a trawl of Wilby’s past journalism or research for a profile article that was never published.

We can also rule out a four-day search for Wilby’s contact details, since those can be found in the published telephone directory. It is an extraordinary thought (though we know it happened at News International), but is it possible that, for £240 a day, Wilby was placed under surveillance?

The other question is, who at the Express did the commissioning? It can’t have been Peter Hill since he is the man who wrote in a sworn statement: “I am not aware of ever having used a private investigator at the Daily Express.” Hill also had “no idea” whether his subordinates used them, so presumably it was one of them – just as it must have been subordinates who continued to commission work from Whittamore, a convicted criminal, right up to 30 July 2010.

Will we ever know the answers to these two questions? Probably not in this part of the Leveson inquiry, where the caravan has moved on. Perhaps it’s a job for a private investigator.

Read more about Steve Whittamore and the Motorman files here.

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

Ex Express editor says McCann stories boosted circulation

The former editor of the Daily Express has denied claims made to the Leveson Inquiry that he was “obsessed” over coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

Peter Hill said it was an “international story on an enormous scale” and that there was an “enormous clamour” for information.

“It was not a story you could ignore”, he said, “you simply had to cover it as best you could.”

Hill said it was “nothing to do with an obsession”, adding that the “entire country” had an opinion about the 2007 disappearance of McCann.

Express reporter Nick Fagge told the Leveson Inquiry in December that Hill had “decided it was the only story he was interested in.”

There was a tense exchange between Hill and Robert Jay QC, during which Hill accused the Inquiry counsel of putting him “on trial” during questioning about the tabloid’s McCann coverage. Lord Justice Leveson reassured him he was not.

“I did not accuse them of killing their child. The story that I ran were the people that did accuse them and those were the Portuguese police,” he said.

He added that there was “reason to believe that they might possibly be true.”

When asked by Jay about checking the accuracy of the stories, Hill said: “We did the best we could do which was not very much.” He added that the McCann stories boosted circulation “on many days”.

Madeleine’s parents accepted £550,000 in damages and an apology from Express Newspapers in March 2008 for what the company said were “entirely untrue” and “defamatory” articles. Hill told the “nothing” further happened after the libel case.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson