Operation Motorman again – more questions for the Observer

Last week I wrote a couple of blog posts (here and here) about Operation Motorman – an investigation into the systemic use by the UK newspaper industry of illegally acquired personal information – and the questions that this raised for The Observer newspaper (among other newspapers and magazines in the UK). The developments in relation to the News of the World this week have moved the story on in relation to phone hacking, but the one piece of evidence in the public domain confirming systemic evidence of UK newspaper activity remains under-reported and unconsidered. Indeed, last week, in the Observer, Peter Preston in his media column underplayed the whole affair as old news, writing as follows,

“The phone-hacking fuelling so much current fury is very old news. It died away in 2006, after the information commissioner issued a notably fierce report about private eyes and privacy. It stopped dead in 2007, when that rogue News of the World reporter and a private detective went to prison. Nobody has produced fresh evidence to challenge the Press Complaints Commission’s belief that a dodgy era is over and done with.

That doesn’t wipe the slate clean, of course; but it does argue for a little perspective. Is hacking into people’s phone messages better or worse than “blagging” your way deep into their bank accounts or medical records? The mess of our law at the turn of the century dealt with such matters via two different acts. Blagging was a contagion (the information commissioner found more than 30 newspapers and magazines guilty, with the Mail and Mirror, not the News of the World, top of the shop); hacking, often by the same private eyes, fell into a separate category only because a separate law proscribed it.

So should Scotland Yard have pursued the 58 reporters in the Daily Mail newsroom who hired a blagging eye? Or the 45 reporters at the Mirror (then edited by Piers Morgan)? Or the four Observer staffers who set dozens of inquiries running? You can understand, perhaps, why there wasn’t a massive rush for justice. You can also see why a new CPS trawl over all the evidence the Yard kept back is necessary.”

As suggested in my recent posts going back over the evidence from Operation Motorman seems necessary – but recent allegations suggest that, contrary to the view of Peter Preston, this is not old news. We know this week, of course, that these data breaches are not old news. Allegations relevant to last year, are now at issue.

The press behaviour revealed by Operation Motorman were once roundly condemned by one newspaper.  The Guardian in a powerful leader article of August 2006 is worth a read.

Do journalists routinely bug phones and illegally intrude on peoples’ privacy? That question is bound to be posed after this week’s police operation that resulted in charges against a reporter working for the News of the World. As it happens, we know the answer, thanks to a highly detailed, if little reported, document produced by the information commissioner in May this year.The document – What Price Privacy? – contains definitive evidence that many national newspapers, tabloid and broadsheet, habitually break the law by paying private detectives for information about people in public life. Operation Motorman, an investigation by the police and the information commissioner, raided the offices of one investigator and found a “systemic and highly lucrative business” documenting thousands of offences committed by the private detectives on behalf of 305 named journalists. The information obtained included itemised telephone bills, mobile phone records, driving licence details, ex-directory numbers, and information from the police national computer and the driving licence and vehicle authorities. The targets included broadcasters, football managers and members of the royal family – as well as people randomly caught up in their lives. A decorator who parked his van outside a lottery winner’s house found himself the subject of media investigation via the detective agency.

On this basis alone, from just one private detective, there is overwhelming evidence that elements of the press consider themselves above the law. The industry’s code of self-regulation allows for a degree of intrusion into privacy where an editor can display a clear public interest. But the vast majority of cases in Operation Motorman showed no evidence of serious investigative journalism. These were illegal trawls for high-grade gossip.

All of which invites the question of what the industry’s self-regulator, the Press Complaints Commission, has reacted. This week the PCC’s chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer, did issue a strong reminder to journalists of their obligations under its code of conduct. But the PCC has until now remained remarkably incurious and unwilling to instigate an inquiry of its own, despite the prima facie evidence against hundreds of journalists. The information commissioner’s report told the PCC to take a “much stronger line” to get its house in order. If the PCC wrings its hands and does nothing the press cannot complain if others, including politicians, the courts and the police, step into the vacuum. That is the last thing most journalists would want. But there is a remorseless logic to the consequences of inaction.

At the time of this leader it was not public knowledge that one of those papers that as the leader put it considered “themselves above the law” was the Guardian’s sister paper, The Observer. Was it one of the papers that bought the results of an illegal trawl of people’s private data and “showed no evidence of serious investigative journalism.”? Was it one of those newspapers whose journalists acquired this illegally acquired stuff “for high-grade gossip.”?

We don’t know. First, because there was no indication to the Information Commissioner that there was a public interest defence (a point highlighted by the Commissioner in his 2006 reports). Indeed, in 2009 the then Information Commissioner complained that none of the newspapers had answered the Commissioner’s request for additional information. And second, because until last Sunday and the article by Peter Preston the Observer has been reticent on Operation Motorman – a search of its website revealing no stories referring to the operation, no explanation as to why the journalists acquired the illegally obtained information, no explanation as to whether editorial staff knew Observer journalists were so acquiring this illegally obtained information, no information as to what happened to the 4 journalists that had been involved.

The silence of The Observer is mirrored by the silence of The Guardian newspaper group. 

After posting my piece last week I tweeted Alan Rusbridger, executive editor of The Observer, asking “I  am trying to find out if Guardian group ever issued an official statement on The Observer involvement in Operation Motorman?”

 I received no reply.

I tweeted Guardian journalist, Dan Sabbagh, who wrote an article critical of the Murdoch press and pointing out the questions that had not been answered by the News of the World in relation to phone hacking. I asked him, “So @dansabbagh has asked 12 questions of News INt on phone hacking: http://bit.ly/dF7fG0 while The Guardian group is silent on Op Motorman>” and “Can @dansabbagh (or another at Guardian) ask if someone can answer my questions http://bit.ly/hUatCk on the Observer involvement in Motorman” (tweets here and here). 

I received no reply.

My concerns are not those of someone that is anti-Guardian or anti-Observer. I am a regular reader. I buy (and read) both newspapera rather than merely reading on-line. Both are on order at my nearest shop.

But I am uncomfortable that my newspapers of choice refuse to explain what their journalists were doing getting involved with the private investigator exposed by Operation Motorman. 

I am uncomfortable that a newspaper that I assume has higher ethical standards than others in the UK found itself in the top ten of acquirers of illegally obtained material in the Operation Motorman investigation.

I am uncomfortable that we do not know if the editorial executives, and editorial team at the Observer, condoned the behaviour of the four journalists.

I am uncomfortable that we do not know if these journalists are still working for The Observer of elsewhere in the Guardian media group.

I am uncomfortable that The Guardian group – which bemoaned those newspapers that appeared to feel they were above the law – did not provide information requested by the Information Commissioner, that they did not feel able to explain if there was a public interest justification for their actions.

I am uncomfortable that I do not know if this was investigated by the Readers’ Editor of The Observer.

I am uncomfortable that when pressed by various people on The Observer, the Guardian group and Operation Motorman, there is a silence from the newspaper group.

There are some questions that need answered. The answers may provide a completely satisfactory explanation as to what went on, why the material was obtained, and what happened subsequently – but without answers it is not unreasonable that this loyal Observer reader (who has read the paper for twenty five years) should assume the worst.

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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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