BRITAIN’S newspaper industry failed to take up an offer to view evidence that more than 300 journalists had been involved in illegally accessing information, according to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Christopher Graham, the Commissioner, invited editors to visit his offices in September 2009 to see information about possible criminal acts by their staff, contained in confidential files from an investigation known as “Operation Motorman”.
No newspaper took up the invitation until early last year, when one unnamed publication got in touch with the ICO. Several more newspapers asked to see the files last summer after the Government had announced a public inquiry into malpractice by the press.
The Motorman files named 305 journalists who had commissioned Steve Whittamore, a private investigator, to obtain information including criminal records, mobile phone numbers and “friends and family” numbers. Many of the requests could be fulfilled only by illegally accessing databases, such as the police national computer and DVLA records.
Whittamore pleaded guilty in 2005 to illegally accessing data and trading information with the media.
Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner at the time of the case, told the Leveson inquiry last month that the ICO had been advised that it would be too expensive to prosecute the journalists involved. The journalists could also have tried to use a public interest defence. However, Mr Thomas told the inquiry that the reporters were generally pursuing “celebrity tittle-tattle” rather than genuine investigative journalism.
Mr Graham, who replaced Mr Thomas in June 2009, told the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee in September that year that he was willing to “share with a properly authorised editorial figure in a newspaper group the names on the list”. The ICO believes that newspapers ignored the offer because they were more interested in campaigning against tougher sentences for blagging – obtaining personal data without the consent of its owner – than identifying staff who may have been involved in criminal acts.
The ICO statement conflicts with evidence given to the Leveson inquiry yesterday by a lawyer for Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail. Liz Hartley said that the ICO had not made evidence from the Motorman files available until last July.
Associated sent two executives and two lawyers to inspect the files in August. The company was by far Mr Whittamore’s biggest customer. The ICO published a table in 2006 showing that 58 Daily Mail journalists had made 952 requests for information. Another 33 Mail on Sunday journalists made 266 requests.
News International, publisher of The Times, was also a significant customer. The News of the World, which closed in July, made 228 requests via 23 journalists. The table shows that a single journalist for The Times made two requests.