News: Operation Motorman – new investigation shows more than 17,000 requests for information

14 09 2011

Operation Motorman was the 2003 investigation into the illegal trade in personal information by the British Press.  Whereas the phone hacking saga has – so far at least – only impacted on News Group Newspapers, the Motorman investigation reached into almost every part of the newspaper industry. 

A well known table in the Information Commissioner’s report “What Price Privacy Now?” (see the end of this post) identified 32 different publications which were using the services of private investigators to obtain private information.

On April 2005, Steve Whittamore and John Boyall and two men who had given them access to the police computer, pleaded guilty to procuring confidential police data to sell to newspapers and were given conditional discharges.  Although the case was reported at the time, it did not lead to any serious regulatory or political action.

In today’s “Independent” Ian Burrell and Mark Olden report the results of a major new investigation into Operation Motorman and Steve Whittamore’s work.   The piece, “Exposed after eight years: a private eye’s dirty work for Fleet Street” contains a number of important new pieces of information concerning Mr Whittamore’s operation.

The “Independent” has seen files containing 17,000 requests for information by journalists.  A number of these targeted victims of crime.   Mr Whittamore’s role in the Dowler story has already been reported (he told a local newspaper recently “I was just the middle man”).  Other victims of crime apparently included

  • the parents of Soham murder victim Holly Wells.
  • the parents of murdered schoolgirl Sara Payne
  • victims of the Dunblane massacre.

The “Independent” has also spoken to the now retired lead ICO investigator who told them that his team was forbidden from interviewing journalists:

“The biggest question that needed answering was, why did the reporters want all these numbers and what were they doing with them? … We weren’t allowed to talk to journalists.  It was fear – they were frightened.

According to the “Independent” the Table below – recording 3,757 transactions – substantially understates the number of cases.  In fact there are said to have been 17,489 orders from media organisations, including 1,028 from News International (including 90 from arrested News of the World journalist Greg Miskiw), 6,774 from Trinity Mirror titles.  It seems that the Table underreports the numbers because it groups multiple requests by a journalist as a single transaction.

The investigation by the “Independent” appears to reveal, in the words of its leading article, “the astonishing laxness with which the authorities dealt with potential wrongdoing“.  This is yet another issue on the Leveson agenda.


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One response

14 09 2011
David Swede

FOI requests are becoming a very important source of information on what’s really going on in Britain, they are a vital tool for transparency, much needed.

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