Private eyes charged with breaking data law in search of news scoops

By Mark Watts

Prosecutors have charged six people working for private detective
agencies over the supply of confidential information to the press.

The Information Commissioner, who regulates the Data Protection Act,
has mounted the prosecution after a lengthy investigation into the
obtaining, and sale to newspapers, of private material such as
telephone account records.

It marks a clampdown on how newspapers
gather information, coming after four people were sentenced last Friday
for obtaining confidential details from the police national computer
(PNC) for newspapers.

In the new case, six defendants have been
summoned to appear before magistrates next month on charges of
breaching Section 55 of the 1998 Act. They are yet to enter pleas.

The
section makes it unlawful for anyone to obtain or disclose personal
data without the consent of the data controller, such as a telephone
company that holds billing information.

The Information
Commissioner's office identified the six as: Steven Whittamore (who
faces three charges); John Gunning (one); Christopher Dewse (two); Mark
Maskell (two); Andrew Lyle (two); and Paul Jones, also known as Taff
Jones (one).

No journalist has been charged.

But this
prosecution, together with the case that concluded last week, has
increased pressure to change the Editors' Code of Practice and ban
journalists from obtaining confidential information unlawfully; whether
handling stolen goods from bin scavengers such as Benjamin Pell, a
convicted thief, or in breach of the Data Protection Act.

Last
Friday, a police control-room employee in Wandsworth, Paul Marshall,
39, and a retired police officer who became a private detective, Alan
King, 58, of Coulsdon, Surrey, pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit
misconduct in a public office. Two other private eyes admitted
breaching Section 55 of the Data Protection Act by the unauthorised
obtaining of PNC information.

The charges related to 19
PNCchecks. The prosecution told Blackfriars Crown Court that, for
example, a Sunday Mirror journalist asked for a PNC check on Jessie
Wallace, who plays Kat Slater in EastEnders.

The court heard that
it resulted in a story headlined, "TV Kat's guilty secrets; she hides
criminal past from Eastender bosses". The actor had two convictions:
for shoplifting and drinkdriving.

The judge, John Samuels QC,
conditionally discharged the four defendants for two years, but warned:
"A message has to go out to others who are tempted to act in a similar
way. It will, in appropriate circumstances, result in immediate
custodial sentences."

He said: "The vice of what those who admit
the primary conspiracy in this case actually did was to make known to
the press information which, on any view, ought to have been kept
confidential and which, on any view, was bound to cause, at the very
least, immense embarrassment to those members of the public who are
entitled to require the state and its organs to maintain
confidentiality in relation to their affairs."

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