Info chief: Not practical to contact press blagging targets

The Information Commissioner appeared to rule out the possibility of contacting every suspected victim of convicted private investigator Steve Whittamore – stating that to do so would be a ‘phenomenal undertaking”.

After raiding Whittamore’s home in 2003 as part of Operation Motorman police seized a cache of handwritten records documenting thousands of requests for information from journalists, made by 305 reporters from 31 publications across the UK.

As reported by Press Gazette earlier today, the campaign group Hacked Off has written to Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, asking him to release the details of individuals targeted by Whittamore between 1999 and 2005.

If he refused the group said it could seek judicial review of his decision.

Giving evidence to the inquiry this morning, Graham said that a ‘fair number’of people had already accessed the Motorman files as a result of court orders and ‘subject access requests’to his office.

Graham said he was open to further individual requests but said the difficulty in contacting every potential target of Whittamore ‘lies in the nature of the dossiers themselves”.

‘These are notebooks and sometimes the information contained in them is deeply obscure,’he said.

‘I said in my witness statement that the individual who made the notes must have had a perfect understanding of what he was intending, but it isn’t always clear.’

He added: ‘If you said to me you ought to notify everybody whose name appears in the Motorman files, I’d be hard pressed to do that. It isn’t just a question of resources – it isn’t immediately clear who’s being referred to.

‘It isn’t just celebrities, it’s all sort of people who may or may not be part of a story concerning a celebrity, or whoever it is. It’s just a name, sometimes it’s just a surname.

‘I think [ex-Information Commissioner] Richard Thomas put the point very well in his response to you on this matter when he said, if having established the identity of the individual and their address we wrote to them to say simply, ‘You’re details appear in the Motorman file, we can’t tell you why’, that might be an even greater breach of privacy than the original offence, because there would be a suggestion there’s no smoke without fire.

‘Other members of the family might see the letter and say, ‘What’s going on?’, and I couldn’t tell them anymore than a name appears in a file.

‘It would be a phenomenal undertaking and just because there’s a name John Smith I would then have to work out which John Smith.

‘The example I gave to the select committee was Ziggy Stardust – that’s a bit easier to do but there are an awful lot of very anonymous names and it simply isn’t practical.”

He said that if Hacked Off and its lawyers were representing particular individuals who wanted to access the Motorman files they were free to submit subject access requests.

  • To contact the Press Gazette newsdesk call 020 7336 5327 or email pged@pressgazette.co.uk

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