The Leveson Inquiry urgently needs to break open the Motorman files – not least because they might reveal how phone hacking really worked

Few news outlets reported in detail the evidence of Alec Owens, an ex-policeman and former Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) investigator who gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry about Operation Motorman and its aftermath. They should have. Not simply for the light it shed on the practices and ethics of newsgathering, but because his evidence – and the Motorman Files he discussed – might provide the key to how phone hacking worked.

Owens was senior investigating officer at the ICO from 1999 to 2005. In 2003 he led an ICO raid on a house in Hampshire from which a man called Steve Whittamore ran a thriving information acquisition business. Through a remarkable network of fellow blaggers and illicit contacts within the police, telephone companies the DVLA, and elsewhere, Whittamore could get almost any personal information on just about anyone in the UK.

Whittamore’s biggest clients? The British press. Not just the News of the World (who relied heavily on another private investigator by the name of Glenn Mulcaire) but The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday, The Observer, The People, The Daily and Sunday Mirror. In all, more than two dozen national newspapers and magazines commissioned Whittamore to acquire over 17,000 pieces of personal information (see What Price Privacy for list of publications). We know all this because Whittamore kept careful records, in four A4 sized coloured books – a blue one, a red one, a green one and a yellow one, plus lots of miscellaneous records.

The newspapers commissioned Whittamore to get home addresses from telephone numbers, names and addresses for vehicle registration numbers from the DVLA and Police National Computer (PNC), criminal records from the PNC. He was also paid to get phone numbers: ex-directory numbers, mobile phone numbers, BT “friends and family” numbers. None of these can you get legally without proper authority (although there are “public interest” defences).

After the raid Alec Owens and his team went meticulously through the coloured books, astonished at the Pandora’s box of personal information. At the time Owens could not work out why the newspapers had such a fascination with phone numbers. Of course journalists may want to get in contact with someone who is the subject, or the source, of the story. But there were far too many numbers just for that. And the numbers often included all those close to the subject of the story – their partner, their children, their close friends, the people they worked with.

Owens did not pursue this because – according to the evidence he gave under oath at Leveson – he was discouraged from doing so by his bosses. “We can’t take them on,” Owens reported ICO Deputy Commissioner Francis Aldhouse saying, “they’re too big for us”. By his account, he therefore could not question journalists as to why they had acquired friends and family numbers. Those who ran the ICO at the time, including Mr Aldhouse, firmly deny that this was the position.

Then the phone hacking scandal blew up, and some of the names coming out started to match up. Dozens of the people whose personal details were in Whittamore’s files had, it appeared, had their phones hacked. Not only that, but their parents, their partners, their friends, and their colleagues had often also been hacked. A light bulb clicked on in Owens’ head. That’s it, he thought, that’s what they needed all the numbers for.

As Owens says when questioned by Robert Jay QC at the Inquiry on Wednesday, November 30:

Robert Jay QC: You tell us in 5.2 [of your written evidence] you read about Glenn Mulcaire’s arrest which we know took place on 8 August 2006. You say you certainly never associated it with Operation Motorman. Do you now associate it in some way with Operation Motorman, Mr Owens?

Alec Owens: Yes.

Robert Jay QC: And why?

Alec Owens: Basically, at the time one of the burning questions was, especially for the ex-directory mobile phone numbers, what could all these journalists want it for? You’re talking about thousands and thousands of telephone ex-directory numbers. And essentially I — well, I can say, an awful lot of the names of the victims that are coming up in hacking are in Operation Motorman, Steve Whittamore’s books. An awful lot. And my personal feeling was Steve Whittamore was gathering the numbers — he wasn’t hacking, he was definitely not into hacking, we found no evidence of that. But he was then passing them to the papers and possibly those numbers were being passed to people who hacked. I mean the names of people like Milly Dowler, the numbers, ex-directory numbers, that sort of thing, and it wasn’t just an occasional one. There were dozens of them, of the names that have now come out in the hacking Inquiry.

Robert Jay QC: I should ask this question: did you see reference to the Dowlers’ ex-directory numbers in the Operation Motorman material?

Alec Owens: Yes. (Oral Evidence, November 30, 2011)

So, according to Owens, dozens of the phone hacking names match up with the Motorman names. Even the Dowlers’ ex-directory numbers are in the Motorman files.

We do not know what these numbers were used for, or if they were ever called. But, at the very least, the Leveson Inquiry needs to find out if Owens was right. Were any of these phone numbers acquired illegally so they could be hacked? If so, were other newspapers involved in hacking? If not, why were all those phone numbers being bought – at considerable expense – and what were they used for?

To find out the Inquiry has to ask the journalists who commissioned Whittamore to acquire these ex-directory, mobile, and friends and family numbers. But it cannot ask the journalists without knowing who they are. To do this it has to open the Motorman Files.

This post originally appeared on the Hacked Off Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.  Further information about the Hacked Off campaign in relation to Operation Motorman can be found on the Hacked Off Blog.