When newspapers complain about ‘the other hacking scandal’ that is supposedly being neglected by the police, they frequently accuse Lord Justice Leveson of turning a blind eye to the evidence, or even of ‘suppressing’ it.
That smear was exposed on Monday as totally unfounded, thanks to the publication in full by the Exaro investigative journalism website of a previously partly censored police document – a 2008 report by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) about rogue private investigators.
The report was posted on the SOCA website last year in a ‘redacted’ or edited form, but Ian Hurst, a former intelligence agent who testified to the Leveson Inquiry about the alleged hacking of his computer by journalists, acquired a copy of the full document and sought to add it to his main testimony.
Newspapers have repeatedly claimed in recent weeks that the redacted sections of the report concealed sensational evidence of the large-scale commissioning by industries other than the press of private investigators who used illegal methods. They say, again and again, that the judge saw this evidence and failed to act on it.
Here is an example from the Daily Mail:
‘Not only have the police failed to hold any lawyer, businessman or other non-journalistic culprit to account. When Lord Justice Leveson was shown SOCA’s secret document, he decided it was outside his remit. He doesn’t even mention it in his door-stopping report of more than 2,000 pages.
‘A policeman called out to investigate a burglary who comes across an armed robbery would presumably take some notice. Lord Justice Leveson sailed on unperturbed, apparently not greatly concerned that he had stumbled across a similar scandal [to press phone hacking, but] much greater in scope.’
Now that Exaro has published the full, unredacted report we can see that it simply does not contain the evidence that newspapers have been saying it does. In fact, far from laying a trail of suspicion away from the press and towards other industries, the previously-hidden passages of the report appear to lead straight back towards the News of the World.
As for Lord Justice Leveson, he explained last year that he had no grounds and no power to act on this matter, and he repeated that last month. The unredacted document vindicates him entirely. So what does the full SOCA report say? It is a description of rogue activities by private investigators, based on evidence gathered by a number of police operations up to September 2007. It appears to have been written as part of a discussion about the case for statutory regulation of the private investigation industry.
It says nothing new about the commissioning of illegal activity by industries other than the press. There is one paragraph on this subject, stating that besides the media, the principal clients of private investigators are: people involved in domestic legal proceedings, criminals, debt recovery companies and loss adjusters checking insurance claims.
This passage was not redacted when the report was first published last year, and indeed is clearly copied from a report published by the Information Commissioner’s Office as long ago as 2006. In other words, this information has been in the public domain for years.
Newspapers have made much of claims about the involvement of ‘blue-chip companies’. Exaro has now confirmed that the full SOCA report does indeed name two blue-chip companies, British Telecom and British Gas. But far from claiming that either had done anything illegal the report says they were targets of rogue private investigators. So was HMRC, it says.
Looking at the redactions as a whole, it is clear in almost every case that there was a reasonable explanation for SOCA’s decision to conceal information.
Comparison between the Exaro document and the version of the report currently on the SOCA website, shows there were 29 redactions in all. Twelve of these simply removed the names of the police operations which had yielded the relevant information, a step designed to make it difficult to link details given in the report with particular cases. This would prevent compromising investigations that were still under way or before the courts.
Of the remaining 17 redactions, 11 removed descriptions of methods used by private investigators. For example, there were several references to a brand of software used to hack computers, and it is easy to see why SOCA did not want to advertise this.
That leaves six. One was a reference to an attachment that is no longer attached and the remaining five dealt with specific details of private investigator activity and in particular their costs.
There is therefore nothing in the unredacted report to justify claims that there is a huge hidden scandal involving blue-chip companies that employ private investigators to break the law. And when Lord Justice Leveson saw the report he would have found no grounds – within his inquiry remit or outside it – to make it all public, to act on it in some way or to encourage more police action.
Once again, newspapers have smeared the judge and smeared his inquiry. Their motive is clear: to undermine the credibility of his recommendations on self-regulation of the press, because editors and proprietors are determined to avoid even the modest measure of accountability he has proposed – and which Parliament has endorsed.
There is a final point, which takes us back to public concern about the conduct of the press.
Of the references to specific police operations that were concealed by SOCA’s redactions, we can now see that most of them were to Operation Abelard II. It is clear that many of the worst activities identified in the report – for example, corrupting police officers and telecoms employees, electronic surveillance and the interception of live phone calls – had been discovered in the course of Abelard II.
What was Abelard II? An investigation into the murder in 1987 of Daniel Morgan, a partner in a private investigations firm that worked closely with . . . the News of the World.
The Home Secretary recently set up the Burnton Inquiry into the Morgan case. Its remit includes examining ‘the incidence of connections between private investigators, police officers and journalists at the News of the World and other parts of the media and alleged corruption involved in the linkages between them’.
Read the Exaro reports by Peter Jukes and Mark Conrad, and view the unredacted SOCA report, on the Exaro website.
Professor Brian Cathcart is Executive Director and Dr Evan Harris Associate Director, Hacked Off.