Observer seeks to distinguish ‘Operation Motorman’ from the phone-hacking scandal

In 2006 the Information Commissioner’s Office published a report, ‘What price privacy”, which along with other cases shone a light on the ‘Operation Motorman’ investigation into the use of a private investigator by the media to obtain personal information, which according to the report was often through a deception process referred to as ‘blagging’.

Journalists have a voracious demand for personal information, especially at the popular end of the market. The more information they reveal about celebrities or anyone remotely in the public eye, the more newspapers they can sell. The primary documentation seized at the premises of the Hampshire private detective consisted largely of correspondence (reports, invoices, settlement of bills etc) between the detective and many of the better-known national newspapers – tabloid and broadsheet – and magazines. In almost every case, the individual journalist seeking the information was named, and invoices and payment slips identified leading media groups. Some of these even referred explicitly to ‘confidential information’.

The report, which also includes extracts from a ‘blaggers’ training manual, claimed that the evidence documented “literally thousands of section 55 offences” (Data Protection Act) with more than 300 journalists identified.

Later that year, in a follow-up entitled ‘What price privacy now’, the Commissioner reported on the response of various national organisations to the earlier publication. In the report he also decided, in the public interest, to list the publications identified from documentation seized during the Operation Motorman investigation, the number of transactions they were positively identified as being involved in and how many of their journalists (or clients acting on their behalf) were using these services.

It should be noted that while the table is dominated by tabloid publications they are far from being alone. Certain magazines feature prominently and some broadsheets are also represented. The Commissioner recognises that some of these cases may have raised public interest or similar issues, but also notes that no such defences were raised by any of those interviewed and prosecuted in Operation Motorman.

Top of the list was the Daily Mail, with a reported 952 transactions and 58 journalists/clients, closely followed by the Sunday People with 802 transactions and 50 journalists/clients. Broadsheets also appeared, the Observer with 103 transactions and 4 journalists/clients and the Sunday Times with 52 transactions and seven journalists/clients. No newspaper was ever prosecuted, according to reports.

At the time the Observer, owned by the Guardian Media Group, issued a statement from its editor Roger Alton, citing a defence in most cases.

Yes, the Observer has used the services of an outside agency in the past, and while there were strong public interest defences for most of those cases, it is possible that some of the inquiries did not sufficiently fit that criteria. As a result, I have now taken steps to ensure that no inquiries will be made through outside agencies unless I believe that there is a compelling public interest to do so.

This week, learned that the Observer is now seeking to clarify the distinction between this case and the phone-hacking scandal which saw a News of the World journalist and private investigator jailed in 2007. According to the paper, there has been some “confusion” within the media between the two cases and the involvement of the Observer.

As a result the Observer’s readers’ editor Stephen Pritchard is now preparing a piece for the paper looking back at the Operation Motorman events and explaining the steps taken by the Observer following the report. This week a spokesman for the Observer told

The ICO report did not concern hacking (a criminal offence without any public interest defence in law), but instead concentrated on potential offences under the data protection act to which there is a public interest defence.

Given the confusion the readers’ editor of the Observer is preparing a piece to clarify this distinction, recap what happened at the time, and explain the steps taken by the Observer following the ICO report.

None of the many newspapers and magazines named in the report were prosecuted. However, Roger Alton, editor of the Observer at the time, issued a public statement making clear that it was not acceptable to use external agencies unless there was ‘a compelling public interest to do so’. The company also subsequently launched a series of training sessions for staff on the implications of the Data Protection Act.

There are many questions related to Operation Motorman and the Observer that people still want answered. This letter from one concerned reader, sent to the readers’ editor last week, raises some of those, such as were the journalists involved suspended or are they still employed by the Observer or the Guardian?

It’s now a case of waiting to see if these will be answered in the Observer’s column, expected in the next couple of weeks.

6 thoughts on “Observer seeks to distinguish ‘Operation Motorman’ from the phone-hacking scandal

  1. loveandgarbage

    Having raised the issue with The Observer (I am the reader you identify in the post as having complained) I should stress that I did not suggest to The Observer that Motorman involved hacking (although The Observer is wrong to suggest that hacking did not form part of the ICO reports – it is mentioned specifically in both reports as a form of contravention of s 55, and the News of the World royal correspondent case is referred to in the What price privacy now? report).

    The ICO report is quite clear that Motorman involved a variety of breaches of the data protection act. The ICO report appears to suggest that The Observer (and many other papers) was involved in the acquisition of material that had been obtained illegally (through blagging, or or more nefarious means). I am not confused as to the distinction between this and hacking (although the latter is of course one instance of obtaining material illegally which would itself contravene s 55 of the Data Protection Act as well as other laws).

    I am concerned that the ICO report indicates that no newspaper offered a public interest defence – when asked by the ICO (which seems to be directly contradicted in the quote from the Observer above). Additionally, the ICO in 2009 gave evidence to the Commons Culture and Media committee and indicated that no paper had properly co-operated in relation to Motorman. The Observer in their initial reply to me indicated that they had received little information from the ICO as to the breaches. Does this then beg questions as to the ICO behaviour? or does it beg the question, how could The Observer know there was a public interest defence (as the quote from Mr Alton in 2006 suggests) if it didn’t know what the alleged breaches specifically related to?

    But even if it is accepted that there is a public interest defence (which my correspondence to The Observer accepts is possible) Mr Alton’s statement begs questions. For example, what on earth does this mean “it is possible that some of the inquiries did not sufficiently fit that criteria.”? How many of the inquiries did not sufficiently fit the public interest criteria (meaning of course, that no defence for the acquisition of the illegally obtained material was available)? Who checked up on the inquiries? Did editors authorise the payments? Did editors know what was being obtained? Were such inquiries assessed for a statable public interest defence before they were made? if so, who assessed whether there was a statable public interest defence?

    Additionally, it would be useful to know what sort of information were the journalists seeking to acquire using the investigator at the centre of Operation Motorman? What exactly was the paper paying for? What was being paid for that could not be obtained by pursuing legitimate means?

  2. Pingback: Links 2-4-11: NoteSlate, Journalists doing a fourth of their job, Games are good | Aram Zucker-Scharff

  3. Pingback: You read it here first | Journal of Technology and Economic Development | Future Technology | Green Technology | Military Technology | Business | Trading | Finance | Computer | Robots | Entertainment | Games | GPS | Software | Music Tech

  4. Pingback: Anslow: di che morte muore un giornale inglese | Hellò Magazine

  5. Pingback: Anslow: di che morte muore un giornale inglese | FQ Londra | Il Fatto Quotidiano

  6. Pingback: Operation Motorman and its relevance to phone hacking fiasco | media law & ethics

Leave a Reply