Saturday 16 June 2012

Leveson Inquiry To Release Operation Motorman Files

Now for an excellent contribution from a regular reader regarding Operation Motorman:

On Monday 11th June, Lord Justice Leveson lit a slow-burning fuse with a few words in his opening remark:
I am today handing down rulings in relation to the application made concerning Operation Motorman and in relation to costs.
The week's high-profile hearings then moved swiftly on to Gordon Brown, George Osborne, John Major, Ed Milliband and David Cameron et al. No wonder then that this mention of Operation Motorman has been overlooked in the cacophony. Leveson's new Ruling on Operation Motorman was quietly published on the Inquiry web site on Friday evening.

Motorman is the pivotal investigation in a sorry succession of ineffectual probes into press abuses through invasions of privacy, phone hacking, corruption of police and public officials and so on. The narrative starts with Operation Reproof and continues to the current police investigations, Operations Weeting, Elvedon and Tuleta.  For more background, see Hackgate for Beginners - Past Police Operations.

Two key pieces of witness evidence mentioned in Lord Justice Leveson' s new Ruling are those of Alex Owens and DCI Gilmour of the Metropolitan Police Service.

Alex Owens was a lead investigator on Operation Motorman, which was an Information Commissioner's (ICO) investigation (therefore not a police investigation) into 'industrial scale' illegal information-gathering practices by 'enquiry agent' Steve Whittamore who kept records of hundreds of transactions that he and three associates carried out, commissioned by multiple journalists for national newspaper titles.  These records are collectively known the Motorman Files and were summarised in table form in the ICO publication 'What Price Privacy Now', p9

In short, the Motorman Files comprise several note books which are colour coded.  The Red Book refers to Trinity Mirror Group journalists, Yellow and Green Books mainly to the Mail and Express (and related titles), and the notorious Blue Book deals solely with News International titles. Collated into spreadsheets by the ICO, these Whittamore notebooks contain a wealth of information on commissioning journalists' names, their targets, personal details, type of information sought (eg criminal records, County Court judgements, mobile phone numbers), and the substantial fees invoiced by Whittamore.

None of the Motorman files has been officially released into the public domain, but Leveson did earlier rule their circulation - under conditions of strict confidentiality - to Core Participants only.

A partially redacted version of the Blue Book has however been leaked and there are rumoured to be a few unredacted copies around.

DCI Gilmour's evidence revealed that information gleaned by Operation Motorman was used in the Met's parallel Operation Glade and that seven unnamed journalists were interviewed by police:
Freelance journalist
Journalist for News of the World
Journalist for News of the World, Scotland
Journalist for the Daily Mirror
Journalist for the Sunday Mirror
Freelance Journalist
Journalist for the Mail on Sunday 
None of these were prosecuted as - identically - their legal representation  argued a) their ignorance of Whittamore's illegal methods and b) the possibility of having 'public interest' defence.  It may or may not be fair to assume these are a representative sample of  'worst offenders' in sheer volume of requests to Whittamore, but it is certain that these seven bear witness to the range of major national newspaper titles.  This why Leveson's June 11th new Ruling on Motorman is likely to lead to explosive revelations, as he has now ruled that more information WILL be released from Operation Motorman - and not just the News Int related Blue Book.

At the end of February 2012, an application was made other than by a core participant to make public the submissions that I had heard in private. On 13 March, I ruled against that application for two reasons. First, I concluded that this private information was within the purview of the Information Commissioner whose decision as to appropriate disclosure deserved respect and, secondly, this Inquiry was not concerned with ‘who did what to whom’ but rather with the culture, practices and ethics of the press as a whole...I then said that Mr Sherborne, on behalf of core participants who were his clients was at liberty to argue that the details should be made public consistent with the Terms of Reference of the Inquiry and my observations about fairness.
David Sherborne duly made representations on 9th May, based on a variety of arguments which make interesting reading, whilst pressing that release of the Motorman Files was essential "to demonstrate the prevailing and continuing culture, practices and ethics of the press."  Counter-arguments were presented on 11th May by other leading newspaper groups - the Core Participants most likely to suffer a high degree of 'reputational damage'. As one would expect, these arguments covered the 'too historical', 'no longer employed by us', 'public interest', 'information was available legally elsewhere', 'trivial in nature' variety - and are essential reading.  In addition, Leveson's Ruling makes specific reference to the evidence of Pia Samar, Editorial Legal Director of Times Newspapers Ltd, who had robustly defended News International by stating that insufficient evidence had been provided by the ICO in 2006, some of it was erroneous, it was impractical to look into the issue further and that, in any event, no prosecutions had to mean presumption of innocence.

In his considerations Leveson observes,
When I saw the identity of some of those who had been targeted and the nature of the information sought, it seemed to me clear not only that much information had been obtained in breach of the Data Protection Act 1988 but also that the potential to deploy the statutory defence was limited in the extreme. I was reluctant to disclose the details and put them into the public domain not least because of the consequent publicity, probably unwelcome, that would attach to the targets who would suffer a further invasion of privacy nine or ten years after Mr Whittamore had first undertaken the task.
Arguably, these are very damning observations and Leveson has also taken the unusual and sensitive step of consulting with some target-victims to glean their views. He goes on to question whether the press were perhaps slow or reluctant to learn any lessons from Operation Motorman and 'What Price Privacy Now' - one newspaper group had even continued to employ the services of Steven Whittamore after his conviction.

Adhering to his 'who did what to whom' self-denying principle, Leveson notes that David Sherborne's main argument was focused on establishing  subsequent rewards and career trajectories of journalists named in the Motorman spreadsheets, as well as "the lack of disciplinary action and the fact that at least a number of the involved journalists had been promoted to senior editorial positions. I agree that these are potentially relevant considerations."

... I can express my conclusions quite shortly. If Mr Sherborne’s clients wish to provide the Inquiry with such information as they have collated from the Whittamore records where a continuous link to the present day can be established, they should do that without further delay... it is only intended to address the specific journalists that Mr Sherborne’s clients have identified who are still in their [the individual newspaper titles] employment. .....I will, of course, consider anything that emerges from the exercise...

...for public purposes, names will be redacted...names of targets and journalists will (when in redacted form) be referenced by letters so that it will be possible for the public to track any answer that might be provided in connection with any allegation.
Leveson's latest Ruling clearly implies that more explosive information from Motorman will be published and, most importantly, illuminate the ethical practices of newspaper titles in addition to those of News International.

In the absence of any individual journalist being prosecuted, Leveson re-asserts their presumption of innocence though, he says, that "is not, however, a total answer to a charge of failure of corporate governance."  Lastly, he returns to the damaging effects on victims of invasion of privacy and how how questions of corporate governance affect or effect corporate culture and ethics: "it might be thought that Operation Motorman provides better evidence of that culture than interception of mobile telephone messages because it undeniably extends beyond one title."

The possibility of further damaging information emerging as a result of Lord Justice Leveson's new Ruling will not be welcomed by News International, nor newspaper groups which have to date escaped public censure. In particular, this may have severe implications for News International Scottish titles and for the Strathclyde Police investigation (Operation Rubicon) into allegations of perjury at the Tommy Sheridan trial.

We have yet to see what fireworks may ensue, but there is no doubt that Leveson has lit the blue touch paper..... and it's smouldering.

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