Thoughts on Coulson: Which newspaper groups can you trust?

So Andy Coulson has resigned. And as he goes scrutiny will once again focus on the Murdoch newspaper group, the various civil cases in the English courts, and whether Andy Coulson said something he shouldn’t have during his evidence in the Tommy Sheridan perjury trial.

And the newspapers will continue to suggest that all ills lie with the Murdoch group. But now that MPs and the press have their political scalp will attention turn to the bigger issue?

In 2006 the INformation Commissioner published a report, “What price privacy” which exposed the trade in personal information relating to private citizens (a trade criminalised by s 55 of the Data Protection Act). The follow up report (PDF), “What Price Privacy Now?” should be widely read. It was published later in 2006 and included detailed information on the extent of infringements by various newspapers and magazines.

That report discusses “blagging” described at p 5 of the report

Blaggers pretend to be someone they are not in order to wheedle out the information they are seeking. They are prepared to make several telephone calls to get it. Each call they make takes them a little further towards their goal: obtaining information illegally which they then sell for a specified price. Records seized under search warrants show that many private investigators and tracing agents are making a lucrative business out of this trade.”

and reference is made to the prosecution that led to Coulson’s first resignation: the phone hacking of royal messages. The latter contravened the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, but also contravened s 55 of the Data Protection Act.

Now, the s 55 breaches identified by the Information Commissioner covered information sold to some journalists. These journalists were some of the principal recipients of this criminally obtained information. The Commissioner noted,

Among the ultimate ‘buyers’ are many journalists looking for a story. In one major case investigated by the ICO, the evidence included records of information supplied to 305 named journalists working for a range of newspapers.” (p 5, What price privacy now?report)

Now bearing in mind this relates to one investigation (Operation Motorman – the best piece of journalism on the background to which is the excellent Nick Davies report)  relating to one private investigator there was something rotten in British journalism.

But, where did these journalists come from?

The gut reaction – given the media frenzy surrounding Coulson and the News of the World – is simple. Blame Murdoch.

But when you examine the figures the Information Commissioner released under freedom of information legislation as to who the journalistic recipients of the criminally obtained information were there are some surprises.

The report publishes the data on p 9.

Publication Number of transactions
positively identified
Number of journalists/
clients using services
Daily Mail 952 58
Sunday People 802 50
Daily Mirror 681 45
Mail on Sunday 266 33
News of the World 228 23
Sunday Mirror 143 25
Best Magazine 134 20
Evening Standard 130 1
The Observer 103 4
Daily Sport 62 4
 The People                         37                                                   19

Daily Express                      36                                                    7

Daily Mail Weekend mag  30                                                    4

Sunday Express                  29                                                    8

The Sun                                24                                                    4

Closer Magazine                  22                                                     5

Sunday Sport                       15                                                     1

Mail on Sunday

(Night and Day mag)          9                                                        2

Sunday Business news        8                                                        1

Daily Record                         7                                                         2

 and so on. That’s the top 20 – purchasers from one investigator. One investigator of a number who were systematically blagging or obtaining private information by corrupt means.

When you look at that list the Mail Group, the Express group, the Guardian Media Group, Murdoch’s papers, the Mirror Group. All the big players are there. But of course, one can always obtain information in contravention of s 55 of the Data Protection Act when there is a public interest defence. So obviously each of these groups offered such a defence when quizzed by the INformation Commissioner. Clearly they wouldn’t be involved in acquiring anything criminally obtained.

Page 8 of the What Price Privacy Now? report reveals:

The Commissioner recognises that some of these cases may have raised public interest or similar issues, but also notes that no such defences were raised by any of those interviewed and prosecuted in Operation Motorman.”

None of them raised a public interest defence.

Now, of course this does not mean that there was no such defence – but the failure to raise the issue does not increase one’s faith in the newspaper groups involved.

So, as the newspapers gloat about Coulson’s departure on Saturday and Sunday – look at the list above and wonder if Coulson’s News of the World was doing anything substantially different from what seemed to be an endemic problem in British print media. This is not to excuse Coulson’s News of the World – but to remind us all that there is a much bigger issue here.

We are constantly reminded of the freedom of the press, and their important role within the state. Can we trust institutions that were systemicatically reliant on criminally obtained information only a few years ago? What happened to the journalists who obtained this information? Were they dismissed? Did they resign – even once? If newspapers allege systemic issues at the News of the World suggested that those in senior positions should have known – what of those at the top of the Motorman list? What about their editors? And how many of these editors sit or have sat on the Press Complaints Commission – adjudicating on issues affecting private individuals complaining about abuse of press power?

The News of the World phone hacking allegations are very worrying – but are some papers shouting loudly to disguise instances of their own reliance on criminally acquired material?

Are there any media outlets we can trust? Answers on a postcard please.


(with many thanks to Iain Hepburn who provided me with the ICO link – and who has, on twitter, pursued a long and sadly (but unsurprisingly) fruitless attempt to hold some of the editors of some of the groups to account)

About loveandgarbage

I watch the telly and read when not doing law stuff and plugging my decade and a half old unwatched Edinburgh fringe show.
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9 Responses to Thoughts on Coulson: Which newspaper groups can you trust?

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