Former info chief accuses Mail over illegal blagging

Former Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has challenged claims by Daily Mail publisher Associated Newspaper that its journalists were not involved in illegal information gathering.

In August, Associated Newspapers‘ head of editorial legal standards Liz Hartley carried out a review of editorial controls and procedures in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

As part of the review the publisher looked at information relating to the Information Commissioner’s 2003 investigation (Operation Motorman) into private investigator Steve Whittamore, which found the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday had between them made more than 1,000 requests for information to Whittamore.

In a witness statement submitted to the Leveson Inquiry – which has not yet been published but has been seen by Thomas – Hartley concluded that the transactions ‘are likely to reflect inquiries that did not involve illegal activity”.

In his own statement to the inquiry Thomas said ‘this is not a conclusion that can be drawn”.

To back up his claim he listed five Associated Newspapers journalists included in the top 10 users of Whittamore (but did not name them):

  • Journalist JO34 – Daily Mail/Femail: 212 identified illicit transactions totalling £13,780; 467 illicit transactions and probable illicit transactions totalling £20,363
  • Journalist JO63 – Mail on Sunday (and ‘a few for the Sunday Mirror): 59 identified illicit transactions totalling £5,025; 201 illicit transactions and probable illicit transactions totalling £8,660
  • Journalist J167 – Daily Mail: 202 identified illicit transactions totalling £14,695; 503 probable illicit transactions totalling £21,942
  • Journalist J193 – Daily Mail: 188 identified illicit transactions totalling £17,170; 335 illicit transactions and probable illicit transactions totalling £21,622
  • Journalist J239 – Evening Standard (then owned by Associated Newspapers): 192 identified illicit transactions totalling £23,365; 357 illicit transactions and probable illicit transactions totalling £28,062.

Another table showing data for all Associated journalists revealed:

  • The Daily Mail made a maximum 2,841 transactions totalling £143,855
  • The Mail on Sunday made a maximum 797 transactions totalling £41,132
  • The Evening Standard made a maximum 357 transactions totalling £28,062

‘The total sum paid by these three newspapers –over £200,000 – seems high if all that information was obtained legally,’said Thomas.

Associated denials

Hartley’s claim that the transactions did not involve illegal activity echo comments made by Associated’s counsel at the Leveson Inquiry Jonathan Caplan QC.

On 15 November he said that Whittamore was primarily hired by Associated Newspapers to obtain addresses and telephone numbers ‘most of which, not all of which, could legally have been obtained if the individual had had the time to research it”.

‘His [Whittamore’s] assistance was required as far as Associated journalists were concerned to help trace people quickly, usually to verify facts or to comment on stories that were written or in progress prior to publication,’he said.

Thomas outlined several points in his evidence which he claimed ‘cast doubt’over Associated’s conclusions:

  • In 2005 Whittamore pleaded guilty to prosecutions under section 55 of the Data Protection Act based on evidence which was of a ‘similar nature to that seen by Ms Hartley’s colleagues in August 2011″
  • Hartley and her colleagues ‘saw virtually nothing of the original source material’for the investigation
  • Addresses and telephone numbers obtained from telephone companies can still be considered a breach of the Data Protection Act
  • Most mobile and ex-directory numbers are not in the public domain and treated as a ‘confidential matter”
  • Addresses obtained from ‘reverse tracking”, such a obtaining a phone number from a car registration where the address is held by the telephone company or DVLA, have ‘necessarily been obtained illegally”.

Thomas also spoke of his surprise at the admission that the Daily Mail did not stop using Whittamore until early 2007 – two years after he was convicted ‘at a trial where he was described by the judge as a ‘broken’ man and unable to pay prosecution costs”.

‘I hope that this is simply a mistake in Ms Hartley’s statement,’said Thomas.

Earlier this year Associated Newspapers editor-in-chief Paul Dacre told the Joint Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill that ‘questionable methods can be justified’if there is “a great public interest in revealing wrongdoing”, but added that hacking and blagging were ‘criminal charges”.

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