[snipped personal information] I have been an Observer reader for 25 years and wished to raise with you an issue of some concern as to the operation of The Observer newspaper in recent years, on which I would be very grateful to have your views.
The full import of Operation Motorman, and the Information Commissioner reports of 2006 on What Price Privacy http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/library/corporate/research_and_reports/what_price_privacy.pdf (which described the operation and the problematic behaviour in some detail) and What Price Privacy Now? http://www.ico.gov.uk/upload/documents/library/corporate/research_and_reports/ico-wppnow-0602.pdf escaped my attention at the time. It is only recently that I have looked properly at these reports, on following up information on the News of the World phone hacking scandal, and that I saw the material that raised my concern in relation to The Observer.
The focus of the Observer (and Guardian) reports on the News of the World has been on phone hacking. However, the 2006 Information Commissioner reports that other mechanisms to acquire illegally obtained private information are available. He specifically refers to blagging (p 5 of the What Price Privacy Now? report) and says, “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) This is the Operation Motorman investigation. Indeed, Operation Motorman and the involvement of The Sun and the News of the world therein lay at the heart of the pursuit of certain aspects of the Gordon Taylor case – as indicated by the Information Commissioner in 2009 http://www.ico.gov.uk/~/media/documents/pressreleases/2009/ICO_STATEMENT_BLAGGING_090709.ashx . Given the tenacity of the Guardian Newspaper group (both Guardian and Observer) in pursuing the phone hacking allegations I was surprised to see that The Observer was one of the newspapers that appeared in the top 10 of publications with positively identified transactions for illegally acquired material acquired from the investigator Operation Motorman targeted. The approach of the Guardian and The Observer in relation to the News of the World phone hacking stories is praiseworthy, but in this sphere my own feeling is that those pursuing the stories should – like Caesar’s wife – be beyond reproach, or at least prepared to explain why they entered transactions to acquire illegally obtained material.
That The Observer has 103 positively identified transactions (revealed on p 9 of the freedom of information release published as part of What Price Privacy Now?), notably more transactions than those involving The Sun or the Express, involving four journalists surprised me. I was further surprised to note that when the Information Commissioner pursued matters in 2006 enquiring if there was a public interest justification for the transactions (which would have served as a defence to any breaches of the Data Protection Act) no newspaper or magazine involved suggested such a defence was available ( p 8 of the What price Privacy Now? report). I appreciate that this does not mean that there was no such defence – but the failure to co-operate with the Information Commissioner in his investigation is of some concern to me.The lack of co-operation from all media involved in Operation Motorman was a matter of such concern to the Information Commissioner (and hand is successor) that during the evidence to the Culture and Media committee of the Commons in 2009, the then Information Commissioner raised the issue pointing out that no newspaper had assisted with his predecessor’s requests for further information. That this was the attitude of The Observer – as operated by the Guardian group – concerns me as a regular reader.
Having tried to find out if there is an explanation of the behaviour or acknowledgement of the problem in The Observer over the past four to five years has been a fruitless search. An on-line search of the Observer indicates only one story referring to Operation Motorman – Peter Preston’s media column last week. And while the Guardian site includes more, including Nick Davies’ excellent reporting on the investigation, I can find nothing else. I have attempted to solicit information from the executive editor of the group on twitter. While I have had acknowledgements to queries (either through retweeting or indications of passing on links) in the past he has not responded to my queries. Nor has he responded to queries regarding Operation Motorman from a journalist with the STV group.
I have noted that in response to a recent Press Gazette investigation in relation to phone hacking material the Guardian group responded indicating that phone hacking was not used and “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”. (http://blogs.pressgazette.co.uk/editor/2011/01/18/guardian-news-and-media-answers-press-gazettes-phone-hack-questions/ ) However, for me this response begs a question as to The Observer involvement in acquiring the illegally obtained material revealed by Operation Motorman. Are the safeguards identified in the Guardian group response equally applicable to the issues of blagging, and other issues of acquiring illegally obtained material? Or is this viewed as a different level of seriousness? As these seem to involve systemic issues for the group I felt that – while I have not personally been affected, so far as I am aware – there are a number of questions that warrant being brought to your attention as readers’ editor of The Observer.
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 or editorial executives sanction or otherwise condone the acquisition of such illegally obtained confidential personal information?
Were the journalists involved suspended?
Are the journalists involved still employed by The Observer or The Guardian?
Was the involvement of these journalists an issue brought before The Observer Readers’ Editor?
And if so, what was the Readers’ Editor’s view on their behaviour?
How do you as Reader’s Editor view The Observer’s appearance as one of the top ten publications for the acquisition of illegally obtained material in the Operation Motorman case?
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).
Why did The Observer not co-operate with the Information Commissioner investigation (as referred to generally by the Commissioner in his 2009 evidence to the Commons select committee)?
Did Observer journalists acquire illegally obtained confidential personal information from any other investigators? And if so, the questions raised above are relevant in these cases too.
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 I, a loyal Observer reader (who has read the paper for twenty five years), am forced to query if the paper upholds the high ethical and journalistic standards I had long assumed were prevalent there.
I know that other newspapers must answer questions on Operation Motorman, but I am not a reader of these other papers. I would be grateful if you could advise if you would be willing to examine these queries.