“Hacked Off” has, today, launched a campaign to persuade the Leveson Inquiry to release the files from”Operation Motorman“, the 2003 investigation in data protection breaches by newspapers.  In a Press Release issued today, Hacked Off points out that the files have been seen by the Leveson Inquiry, by lawyers for national newspapers and by the newspapers themselves but remain secret from the  public and the victims.

The Motorman files contain:

  • Proof that several national newspapers used private investigators and ‘blaggers’ to acquire private information on an industrial scale
  • Details of some 17,500 transactions, many classified by the Information Commissioner as illegal
  • Evidence of payments to corrupt police officers for information from the Police National Computer
  • Records of criminal records checks, DVLA checks, confidential ‘friends & family’ phone records – all bought and paid for by newspapers

These practices were often, in the words of the former Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas ‘at least as serious as phone hacking, and may be even more serious’.

Motorman was an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2003 into the activities of Steve Whittamore, a private investigator who for years ran a lucrative business providing press clients with addresses, phone numbers, car registrations and other information. Some of this information was legally available and some not: there is no legal way of acquiring records from the Police National Computer, the DVLA or BT’s ‘friends and family‘ database.

Steve Whittamore and three associates were eventually convicted, but no journalist or newspaper was prosecuted. Hacked Off accepts that there is no public interest today in prosecuting journalists for commissioning the obtaining of this information but argues that there is a compelling public interest in the fullest possible disclosure of the files, redacted to remove the personal information of the victims

Hacked Off addresses a number of arguments which have been advanced against publication of the redacted files.

First, that the database is so vast that redacting it for publication is too much work. Not so. The Information Commissioner’s Office itself has estimated that the job would take between 15 and 30 staff days.

Second, there is the argument that, because newspapers say they have stopped using Whittamore, Motorman is ancient history and thus irrelevant to the inquiry.There is an inconsistency here: nobody publicly suggests that journalists are still hacking mobile phone voicemails and yet that is clearly relevant.

Finally, while it is vital that victims’ identities should be redacted from the files (they should be identified only in classes, such as ‘a television presenter’, ‘a victim of crime’, ‘a police officer’ etc) it is equally vital that victims should be informed of what happened. This process – which is a matter of right – is under way in the hacking scandal; it is even more overdue in the Motorman affair and should begin as soon as possible.

Further information can be found in this post on the Hacked Off blog and in  the two reports by the Information Commissioner’s Office:  What Price Privacy? and What Price Privacy Now?