On Saturday the “Independent” ran a story about a 2007 report from the Serious Organised Crime Agency (“SOCA”) suggesting that law firms, telecoms giants and insurance were hiring private investigators to break the law and further their commercial interests. The activities identified by the investigation were said to have included telephone tapping and hacking and blagging information from banks, credit card companies and mobile phone companies.
All this is an entirely proper matter of public debate and concern. It has, indeed, been in the public domain for a number of years. The “Independent” story was substantially based on a 2008 SOCA report – “The Rogue Element of the Private Investigation Industry and Others Unlawfully Trading in Personal Data” [pdf]. Although the “Independent” described this as a “suppressed report” it has been available on the SOCA website since 2012. The story about its “suppression” has already appeared in “The Guardian” over a year ago.
The “Independent'” report has proved to be the inspiration for some good, old-fashioned, Leveson bashing. The newspaper complained that the report had been privately supplied to the Leveson Inquiry but had not been mentioned at the hearings or in the final report. But the SOCA report duplicates information set out earlier by the Information Commissioner in his 2006 report, What Price Privacy? which was extensively cited in the Leveson Report. The judge recommended urgent action to tackle the illegal trade in private data, whoever the perpetrators. This recommendation has not been implemented.
The “Independent” reported that one of the (unidentified) “key hackers” mentioned in the report apparently admitted that “80 per cent of his client list was taken up by law firms, wealthy individuals and insurance firms while only 20 per cent of clients were from the media”. This was, by a typical piece of “Dail Mail” logic transformed into a story that most phone hacking was carried out on behalf of lawyers. The headline told it all “80% of hacking was by lawyers and major firms… and the Leveson inquiry knew all about it“.
The message was clear: Leveson ignored hacking by lawyers and concentrated on the press. In a typically incisive piece, Richard Littlejohn asked “So will M’lud Leveson now investigate phone-hacking lawyers? Don’t hold your breath“.
The problem with this line of argument, as the Zelo Street blog pointed out, was that Lord Justice Leveson had a slight problem here with the terms of reference of his Inquiry. These were “To inquire into the culture, practices, and ethics of the press”. He was not given the job of investigating the “culture practices and ethics” of the legal profession or the insurance industry.
The illegal trade in data has long been ignored by the press which has consistently campaigned against increasing the penalties available under section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998.
Dr Evan Harris, Associate Director of the victims’ campaign group, Hacked Off said:
“Hacked Off is opposed to illegal information gathering in all forms, whoever is doing it. Any criminal conduct, by lawyers, insurance companies or anyone else, should be rigorously pursued by the police.
“However, it is wrong to criticise Lord Justice Leveson, as some newspapers have done, for not focusing on phone-hacking by people outside the press. Papers cannot be allowed to muddy the waters in this way and to excuse large-scale wrongdoing by journalists on the basis that ‘everybody was doing it’.
“The Leveson remit, laid down by the Prime Minister, was clearly limited to the culture, practices and ethics of the press, so the judge was not free to range over a variety of industries. The inquiry’s investigations, moreover, exposed a great variety of press abuses besides phone-hacking, including the theft of personal data, surveillance, intrusion, the fabrication of stories and bullying.
“In fact the inquiry’s discussion of phone-hacking was restricted because of ongoing criminal investigations and civil claims. Hacked Off is confident that the full story of press phone-hacking, and of the corruption of public officials, will be thoroughly investigated in Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry, which the Prime Minister has pledged will begin once the current court cases have run their course.
“The recommendations and conclusions of the inquiry thus stand, no matter how many other industries or professions engaged in phone-hacking or similar activities. To suggest otherwise is like suggesting that no one may be convicted of tax fraud because ‘lots of people are doing it’.