How the Fleet Street sewer rat caused a stink for privacy laws

After
writing a book about legendary bin scavenger Benji Pell, author Mark
Watts says it's time for the press to clean up its act

The extent to which Benji 'the binman' Pell helped Fleet Street reveal the secrets of the stars is staggering.

He made a fortune trawling the rubbish of lawyers and advisors to
the rich and famous for documents to sell to newspapers. But obtaining
confidential material puts journalists and their employers at risk of
prosecution for breaching data-protection laws or handling stolen goods.

It
is also the case that many of Pell's revelations failed to meet a
publicinterest justification for the method used. The willingness of
The Mirror to buy documents retrieved from the rubbish of Elton John's
long-time manager, including credit card statements, was understandable
journalistically. But the revelations, such as the singer's enormous
florist bill, were hardly matters of public interest.

Pell also
sold confidential documents of Neil Hamilton, former Conservative
minister, to his legal adversary, Mohamed al Fayed. Secretly recorded
tapes reveal that David Leigh, investigations editor of The Guardian,
which has been sanctimonious in reporting how The Sunday Times bought
material from Pell, encouraged him to sell to Fayed one of Hamilton's
legally privileged papers.

Pell taped his telephone conversation
with Leigh as he explained that he had the opening statement of
Hamilton's barrister for his doomed libel action against Fayed.

"First of all, put it on a fax to me," Leigh
replied. "My second piece of advice is, take yourself round to Mr Fayed
pronto, and I am sure he will cross your palm with silver."

This duly happened.

Pell
later admitted, on tape, that he and others were attempting to pervert
the course of justice, the offence that put Jeffrey Archer in jail.
When I approached Leigh for the book, he said: "I didn't tell him
[Pell] to go and pervert the course of justice by selling things to
Fayed."

Pell was convicted for theft of "confidential waste"
after taking rubbish from a solicitors' firm acting for another
disgraced ex-Tory minister, Jonathan Aitken. The Guardian says that,
unlike other newspapers, it never paid Pell. But journalists and
newspapers that did faced joining him in the dock – charged with
handling stolen goods. As Pell says: "I don't think there's enough
room."

The issue of how journalists obtain confidential material
has also been raised by a Scotland Yard investigation into the leaking
of confidential police information to the press.

Two directors of
private detective agencies, John Boyall, from Caterham, Surrey, and
Stephen Whittamore, from New Milton, Hampshire, pleaded guilty on 6
April at Blackfriars Crown Court to breaching the Data Protection Act
by the unauthorised obtaining of confidential information from the
police national computer. The prosecution will not proceed with a
charge against each of the pair of conspiring to commit misconduct in a
public office.

A police control room employee and a retired
police officer who became a private detective had already entered
guilty pleas in relation to the case. The case was adjourned for
sentencing for all four. Notably, no journalist is being prosecuted for
making corrupt payments for police information or breaches of the Data
Protection Act.

Separate from this case, Rebekah Wade, editor of
The Sun, astonished a committee of MPs two years ago by saying that her
newspaper had paid police for information. I understand that another
police investigation has compiled long lists of journalist clients of
private detectives who sought other confidential information.

Journalists who think that I am spoiling their fun should remember that they too can be victims of such activity.

First,
Piers Morgan recalled on Breakfast With Frost how "the biter was bit",
saying that Pell targeted his newspaper's office and found print-outs
of his email exchanges with management, which later surfaced in Punch.

And
I discovered that one private detective agency, hired by an aggrieved
subject of my journalistic enquiry, broke into my mobile telephone
account in a failed attempt to identify a possible confidential source.

Press
Gazette reported last year that investigative journalists were often
targeted by private detectives. The market imperative on newspapers
effectively to force journalists to obtain confidential information at
or beyond the edge of criminality is such that a ban will only work if
the industry's regulator acts.

The Press Complaints Commission's
code of practice fails to address the issue. Under clause 10, the press
must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by, among other
things, the "unauthorised removal of documents", unless it can be shown
to be in the public interest. The clause, not intended to address
taking rubbish that might contain documents, needs to be amended so
that it does.

A further amendment is needed to ban the press from
seeking to obtain or publish material acquired in contravention of
Section 55 of the Data Protection Act (1998). But guidance is needed on
the section because it could be interpreted to outlaw even some
straightforward journalistic enquiry.

The NUJ's code of conduct
states, in clause five, that a journalist should obtain information
"only by straightforward means" unless there are "over-riding
considerations of the public interest".

But it needs to be more specific to address the problems.

A society that rejects journalists'

practice
of paying private detectives or bin scavengers for confidential
information must also rid itself of obsessive secrecy, for example, by
making the Freedom of Information Act and other 'open-access' laws much
less restrictive.

Mark Watts is a freelance journalist, and author of The Fleet Street Sewer Rat, £12.99, published by Artnik

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