Some questions for The Observer on acquiring illegally obtained confidential personal information

I should begin with a confession. I am a typical woolly liberal. A Guardian reader, socially liberal; centre of slightly left of centre politically, and no fan of the Murdoch media. I don’t have Sky. I don’t read the Murdoch press. I am deeply uncomfortable with the Fox phenomenon in the US.

It therefore pains me to suggest that in the debate about the press furthering the trade in personal and private information (via phone hacking and other mechanisms) I think the Murdoch media is getting a raw deal.

As one would expect following the Andy Coulson second resignation (can we expect a Mandelsonian third coming for Coulson at some point in the future?), given the zeal with which the Guardian media group has pursued it, The Observer has a large piece today on the phone hacking stories involving the News of the World.

The Observer reports,

“The Observer has learned that other newspapers could soon find themselves facing similar allegations. Documents released by the Met to lawyers bringing civil actions are being scrutinised to ascertain whether Mulcaire worked only for the News of the World. If not, the scandal is in danger of spreading.”

Is this a big revelation? Should it be a big surprise to an informed reader of British newspapers?

No – for reasons I explained the other day – but more of that anon. First,  there are some points to note. Throughout the article reference is specifically made to phone hacking. Phone hacking though is only one of the mechanisms encouraged by journalists who obtained criminally acquired material from private investigators – in supporting the trade in personal data exposed in the Information Commissioner reports. The article does not make any reference to those other modes of illegally obtaining material (blagging or conspiracy) referred to in the Information Commissioner reports on what price privacy in 2006 (on which see my post here).

And while it is true that phone hacking can be prosecuted by a variety of means – it is merely one form of contravention of s 55 of the Data Protection ACt 1998. Is it necessarily any more blameworthy and worthy of news attention than blagging or obtaining private information by deception?

The Information Commissioner did not think so in his 2006 reports. And so the Press Gazette – which has asked various newspaper groups if they ever authorised phone hacking – by following the narrow line taken by the Guardian and the Observer is missing aspects of the bigger picture. Now the Guardian came back to the Press Gazette as follows,

“PG: How seriously do you think the News of the World phone hacking allegations have undermined the reputation of British journalism?

GNM: “It has serious potential to do so, but much now depends on whether NI has the resolve to deal with the issue with greater candour and how the PCC responds. If not, it will play out in the courts over many months, if not years.”

PG: Have you ever had a complaint about one of your journalists being involved in phone hacking?

GNM: “No”

PG: What steps have you taken to ensure that none of your journalists are involved in phone hacking?

GNM: “We have our own code of conduct in addition to the PCC Code; we have regular legal training sessions.  It has never been raised as an issue by any readers, subjects, reporters or lawyers. We have had an independent readers’ editor for 13 years. The issue has never been raised with him/her.””

The Guardian group is quite clear. There has never been an allegation of a journalist being involved in phone hacking. What the Guardian group does not answer is a question not posed.

Have any of the group’s journalists ever been involved in transactions involving the acquisition (for money or otherwise) of criminally acquired private information?

Of course we know the answer to this.

The Information Commissioner report, What price privacy now? identifies at pages 8 and 9 – following the Operation Motorman case – that 305 journalists were identified as purchasers in acquisitions of confidential personal information. 4 of those journalists were from The Observer. And they were involved in a series of some 103 transactions. That’s 103 transactions invovling Observer journalists and ONE private investigator.

Did Observer journalists acquire illegally obtained confidential personal information from any other investigators?

Were editorial executives and other management figures aware that 4 Observer journalists acquired illegally obtained confidential personal information from the investigator at the centre of the Operation Motorman investigation?

Did the editor sanction the acquisition of illegally obtained confidential personal information?

Were the 4 journalists involved suspended? Are they still employed by The Observer or The Guardian?

Was the involvement of these 4 journalists an issue brought before The Observer Readers’ Editor? And if so, what was the Readers’ Editor’s view on their behaviour?

Was there a public interest defence in relation to the actions of the 4 journalists? And if so, why – when the matter was raised in 2006 and before – was no public interest defence offered? (see p 8 of the Information Commissioner report).

And how seriously do you think Operation Motorman undermined the reputation of British journalism? And given the apparent lack of UK media concern about it – how seriously should Operation Motorman have undermined the reputation of British journalism?

The 305 journalists at the heart of the Operation Motorman case come from a variety of newspapers. The questions directed against The Observer above can be directed against other newspapers and newspaper groups – but for some reason the print media seems loath to pursue this aspect of the trade in illegally obtained confidential personal information. Instead the focus is on one narrow aspect – phone hacking: a wrong, but only part of the systemic problem in the British print media.

I agree with the view of Kevin Marsh in his BBC blog yesterday “Is this a good moment to recall the 305 named journalists found dealing illegally in private information back in 2006?” Yes. yes it is. Because as Kevin Marsh notes,

“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.”

And that concerns me about the British print media.

And it’s why even those that have continued to pursue the worst excesses of phone hacking should look to their own employees and ask if they have behaved and are behaving properly?

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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2 Responses to Some questions for The Observer on acquiring illegally obtained confidential personal information

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