Blagging figures were 'grossly understated'

The Information Commissioner’s official figures on the extent of blagging by journalists and private investigators unearthed by Operation Motorman have been ‘grossly understated’– according to the man who led the investigation.

The ICO’s 2006 report ‘What Price Privacy?’ reported that 305 journalists had made 3,757 requests for information from private investigator Steve Whittamore, according to notebooks seized from his home in 2003.

But Alex Owens, the ICO’s senior investigating officer between 1999-2005, claimed there were more than 17,000 requests by journalists.

The ICO has previously said that multiple enquiries were grouped as a single enquiry – but Owens claimed that ‘no criteria can justify the discrepancies”.

In evidence handed to the Leveson Inquiry he cited the following examples:

  • Sunday World Ireland: The ICO said one journalist made one enquiry; Owens claimed one journalist made 24 enquiries ‘and there is no way these 24 requests could be defined as a single request”.
  • Sport Newspapers (Daily and Sunday) : The ICO said 5 journalists made 77 requests; Owens claimed one journalist alone made than 220 requests.
  • The Sunday Times: The ICO said one reporter made four requests; Owens said six reporters made more than 100 requests.
  • The Evening Standard: The ICO said one journalist made 130 requests; Owens claimed the only journalist listed on the database made more than 290 requests for information.

Owens told the inquiry that the list of discrepancies ‘goes on and on”.

After he left the ICO in 2005 on health grounds Owens retained his own personal copy of the Operation Motorman database.

On 8 March 2003 he was part of the team that raided Whittamore’s home.

‘It was obvious by the volume and content of the documentation seized, Whittamore worked on a full-time basis for numerous newspaper groups and journalists obtaining a variety of information,’he said.

This ranged from criminal record checks, vehicle registration checks, ex-directory numbers, mobile numbers, and ‘family and friends’ lists.

‘We knew no journalist would be prosecuted’

In his evidence today he claimed the documents seized from Whittamore’s home proved a ‘direct paper chain’linking newspaper groups, journalists, private detectives, corrupt officials and blaggers.

Where the requests were not in the public interest the ICO was in a position to prosecute ‘everyone in the chain from the ‘blagger’ right up to the journalist and possibly even the newspaper groups’under the Data Protection Act.

Instead, Owens claimed that former ICO chief Richard Thomas was ‘bemused’by this course of action and he was told not to make contact with any newspapers or journalists.

‘It was at this moment we knew no journalist could or ever would be prosecuted in relation to our investigation,’said Owens.

The ICO instead focused its investigation on the ‘bottom of the pyramid’– the blaggers and corrupt officials that supplied information from police databases and the DVLA.

In April 2005 he discovered that Whittamore had appeared at Blackfriars Court and received a conditional discharge. Owens claimed he had no opportunity to attend court despite being the investigating officer in the case.

He left the ICO on health grounds shortly after.

‘Get the full truth out in the public domain’

In May 2006 Owens received a copy of ‘What Price Privacy’ from an anonymous source and later that year began linking Operation Motorman with Glenn Mulcaire, who was jailed for phone-hacking on behalf of the News of the World in 2007.

Owens believes there was a link between Whittamore’s blagging of phone numbers and Glenn Mulcaire’s hacking of mobile phone voicemails, telling the inquiry: “An awful lot of the names and victims coming up in hacking are in Steve Whittamore’s books.”

In August 2009, alarmed at the thought that thousands of potential blagging and hacking victims would never be contacted by police, he contacted The Guardian’s Nick Davies after he broke the story about PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor’s settlement with News International over breach of privacy.

He offered to help Davies in his investigations but after this ‘intended doing nothing further”.

In 2011 deputy Information Commissioner David Smith appeared on BBC’s Panorama claiming no journalists were convicted in the Operation Motorman case ‘because we didn’t have the evidence that those journalists knew beyond all reasonable doubt that the information had been obtained illegally”.

Owens described the statement as ‘not only inaccurate but deliberately misleading”. Shortly after he decided to re-examine the evidence contained on the database he took with him when he left.

Some time between August and September he contacted The Independent ‘to get the full truth out in the public domain, choosing the paper ‘in the knowledge that they had no involvement in Operation Motorman”.

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