The disclosure that “News of the World” private investigator Derek Webb followed 153 individuals on behalf of the newspaper has added another dimension to the “phone hacking saga”. In a post yesterday, we discussed the potential legal wrongs committed by Mr Webb in gathering information by “secret surveillance”. A number of other aspects of the story are worthy of comment.
First, there is the revelation by media commentator Roy Greenslade that 6 or 7 months ago every single member of the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport Committee was followed for three days by private investigators and staff at News of the World. Professor Greenslade told Media Matters Radio that:
“I do have a source who was at News of the World… he tells me that for three days, only six, seven months ago, every single member of the parliamentary committee investigating this matter were followed by private eyes and or members of staff at the newspaper. Only after some of the staff protested that they didn’t want to do it were they called off“.
The members of the committee are John Whittingdale (Chair) Dr Thérèse Coffey, Damian Collins, Philip Davies, Paul Farrelly, Alan Keen, Louise Mensch, Steve Rotheram, Adrian Sanders, Jim Sheridan and Tom Watson. Only the last of these is on the list of those followed by Mr Webb – so presumably other investigators were involved as well.
These MPs were, presumably, placed under surveillance with a view to discovering private information about them which could, potentially, be used by the “News of the World”.
In a report published in March 2001 the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee concluded that hacking of an MP’s phone could potentially be a contempt of parliament – if it could be shown to have interfered with the work of the House or to have impeded or obstructed an MP from taking part in such work. The same could obviously be said of surveillance of MPs.
Two interesting pieces of information concerning private investigator Derek Webb have come to our attention. First, Jon Slattery draws attention to the NUJ’s submission to the Leveson inquiry in which it is said News of the World management instructed a private detective to join the NUJ and obtain a press card so he could “become a journalist” as a cover. He links this to a report that Mr Webb is seeking the help of the NUJ to obtain payments which he claims are due to him from the “News of the World”. The stories appear to be connected.
Secondly, our attention has been drawn to Mr Webb’s involved in the case of Milton Keynes journalist, Sally Murrer. The “Private Eye” dossier on the case is available online. Ms Murrer was accused of “aiding and abetting” misconduct in public office by a Detective Sergeant Mark Kearney of the Thames Valley Police. Mr Webb was also accused of the same offence. In August 2008 “Private Eye” reported that his diaries, which had been seized by the police
“describe surveillance operations he carried out for tabloid newspapers on high profile targets suspected of having affairs. Two government ministers are said to be mentioned, as well as the former attorney-general Lord Goldsmith and outgoing director of public prosecutions, Sir Ken Macdonald”
It now appears that the operations in question were being carried out for the “News of the World”. When Ms Murrer and Mr Webb were acquitted of these charges in November 2008 he was described by the BBC as “a journalist”.
We await further developments in this story with interest.