Journalists and illegal information

is director of OffspinMedia and a former Today editor

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Is this a good moment to recall the 305 named journalists found dealing illegally in private information back in 2006?

It was a thought that occurred to me as I listened to former News of the World editor Phil Hall on Radio 4's Today this morning talking about that other former editor, Andy Coulson.

Although he seemed a tad confused about the status of the stories for which Coulson's reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glen Mulcaire went to prison, what he actually said - without meaning to - was fascinating. 

And amounted to this: as a News of the World editor, I wouldn't expect to know whether my reporters' evidence had been collected illegally. A reporter protects his sources.  

Um ... well, yes. But not from his editor and not if the source material is illegally obtained. Otherwise, how on earth can the editor - as he's required to do under the, admittedly flimsy, newspaper Editors' Code - balance any subterfuge with the public interest?

And his incredulity that there might be more than 'one or two' NotW journalists acting illegally doesn't square with what we found out in 2006.

You might remember the then Information Commissioner Richard Thomas' report 'What Price Privacy?' - the outcome of an investigation called 'Motorman' into the illegal trade in data.

According to the report, published back in May 2006, documents seized during Motorman and other investigations helped the ICO to put together this flowchart showing how the trade worked - including the data obtained illegally that ended up in journalists' hands:

'What Price Privacy?' tells how:

"5.6 ... documentation seized at the premises of the Hampshire private detective ..."

That's to say, one target of Operation Motorman

"... consisted largely of correspondence (reports, invoices, settlement of bills etc) between the detective and many of the better-known national newspapers - tabloid and broadsheet - and magazines. In almost every case, the individual journalist seeking the information was named, and invoices and payment slips identified leading media groups. Some of these even referred explicitly to 'confidential information'."

The information, all illegally obtained and illegally traded, included criminal records, registered keepers of vehicles, driving licence details, ex-directory telephone numbers, itemised telephone billing and mobile phone records, and details of 'Friends & Family' telephone numbers.

The documents seized also included notes, invoices, receipts etc naming the journalists for whom the work had been carried out.

"5.8 ... This mass of evidence documented literally thousands of section 55 offences, and added many more identifiable reporters supplied with information, bringing the total to some 305 named journalists.

5.36 ... In just one week in 2001, for instance, a named journalist on the newsdesk of a Sunday newspaper was billed for 13 occupant searches, two vehicle checks, one area search and two company searches, making a total bill of £707.50 plus £123.81 VAT."

Now it's true that we don't have the details of the stories for which these searches were carried out - so it's impossible to assess whether there might be a public interest defence. Whether they were only commissioned when all other methods to uncover wrongdoing had failed? But with hundreds of newspaper journalists commissioning thousands of illegal data pilferings, it does look like these illegal data minings were a first rather than a last resort.

In the report's conclusions and recommendations, the commissioner observes wryly:

"7.2 ... At a time when senior members of the press were publicly congratulating themselves for having raised journalistic standards across the industry, many newspapers were continuing to subscribe to an undercover economy devoted to obtaining a wealth of personal information forbidden to them by law."

The conclusion has to be that obtaining information illegally or through bribery - remember Rebekah Wade, as was, at the Culture, Media and Sport select committee? - was such a matter of routine that stealing the contents of celeb's voicemails hardly registered.

This was almost five years ago now - and one of the commissioner's actions was to take the Motorman evidence to the PCC.

"7.19 As was made clear, certain journalists associated with certain newspapers and magazines were behaving in an unacceptable way, especially in the light of the Select Committee's recent condemnation ...

7.20 The Information Commissioner recommends that the Press Complaints Commission (and its associated Code of Practice Committee of Editors) should take a much stronger line to tackle any involvement by the press in the illegal trade in personal information."

Of course, the PCC dropped the ball on the phone-hacking scandal when it failed to carry out any proper investigation - undermining the whole idea of press self-regulation at the same time.

It's moved beyond that now. And we wait to see what happens in the courts.

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