Observer and Operation Motorman again – more questions

An interesting post today on the Journalism.co.uk blog gives an update on The Observer position referred to in the readers’ editor’s correspondence with me.

Journalism.co.uk publishes the original statement from editor of The Observer at the time, Roger Alton, on the Motorman investigation,

“Yes, the Observer has used the services of an outside agency in the past, and while there were strong public interest defences for most of those cases, it is possible that some of the inquiries did not sufficiently fit that criteria. As a result, I have now taken steps to ensure that no inquiries will be made through outside agencies unless I believe that there is a compelling public interest to do so.”

Journalism.co.uk report that The Observer is to publish a review by the readers’ editor,

“This week a spokesman for the Observer told Journalism.co.uk:

The ICO report did not concern hacking (a criminal offence without any public interest defence in law), but instead concentrated on potential offences under the data protection act to which there is a public interest defence.

Given the confusion the readers’ editor of the Observer is preparing a piece to clarify this distinction, recap what happened at the time, and explain the steps taken by the Observer following the ICO report.

None of the many newspapers and magazines named in the report were prosecuted. However, Roger Alton, editor of the Observer at the time, issued a public statement making clear that it was not acceptable to use external agencies unless there was ‘a compelling public interest to do so’. The company also subsequently launched a series of training sessions for staff on the implications of the Data Protection Act.”

I have replied to the journalism.co.uk report with a series of additional questions (the comment as I type awaits moderation). My reply to the post is below:

“Having raised the issue with The Observer (I am the reader you identify in the post as having complained) I should stress that I did not suggest to The Observer that Motorman involved hacking (although The Observer is wrong to suggest that hacking did not form part of the ICO reports – it is mentioned specifically in both reports as a form of contravention of s 55, and the News of the World royal correspondent case is referred to in the What price privacy now? report).

The ICO report is quite clear that Motorman involved a variety of breaches of the data protection act.  The ICO report appears to suggest that The Observer (and many other papers) was involved in the acquisition of material that had been obtained illegally (through blagging, or or more nefarious means). I am not confused as to the distinction between this and hacking (although the latter is of course one instance of obtaining material illegally which would itself contravene s 55 of the Data Protection Act as well as other laws).

I am concerned that the ICO report indicates that no newspaper offered a public interest defence – when asked by the ICO (which seems to be directly contradicted in the quote from the Observer above). Additionally, the ICO in 2009 gave evidence to the Commons Culture and Media committee and indicated that no paper had properly co-operated in relation to Motorman. The Observer in their initial reply to me indicated that they had received little information from the ICO as to the breaches. Does this then beg questions as to the ICO behaviour? or does it beg the question, how could The Observer know there was a public interest defence (as the quote from Mr Alton in 2006 suggests) if it didn’t know what the alleged breaches specifically related to?

But even if it is accepted that there is a public interest defence (which my correspondence to The Observer accepts is possible) Mr Alton’s statement begs questions. For example, what on earth does this mean “it is possible that some of the inquiries did not sufficiently fit that criteria.”? How many of the inquiries did not sufficiently fit the public interest criteria (meaning of course, that no defence for the acquisition of the illegally obtained material was available)? Who checked up on the inquiries? Did editors authorise the payments? Did editors know what was being obtained? Were such inquiries assessed for a statable public interest defence before they were made? if so, who assessed whether there was a statable public interest defence?

Additionally, it would be useful to know what sort of information were the journalists seeking to acquire using the investigator at the centre of Operation Motorman? What exactly was the paper paying for? What was being paid for that could not be obtained by pursuing legitimate means?”

I am still preparing a response to the readers’ editor. It will be published here in the next couple of days.

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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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2 Responses to Observer and Operation Motorman again – more questions

  1. G. Bouwens says:

    Note of interest – the link to the Motorman Report is gone (page not found). I’m located in Perth, police state of West Australia

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