by Brian Cathcart
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 for ever. 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 (see par 483).
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:
firstname.lastname@example.org. Please copy your email to the Information Commissioner’s Office: email@example.com.
Further reading about the Motorman/Whittamore file:
An investigation by the Independent
A 2009 report by the Guardian’s Nick Davies
By the way, the following purports to include a redacted version of the spreadsheets. As you will see, it has been redacted to the point of meaninglessness.
Brian Cathcart, a founder of Hacked Off, teaches journalism at Kingston University London. He tweets at @BrianCathcart