The Independent reports today that a former police officer has revealed how the authorities have known for more than eight years the vast scale on which media organisations employed private detectives to obtain the personal information of thousands of individuals, including the families and friends of murder victims.
It has conducted a detailed examination of the files seized as part of Operation Motorman, which was set up by the Information Commissioner's Office to look into widespread breaches of data protection laws by the media in 2003, and says 17,000 requersts were made to private investigator Steve Whittamore.
The Independent also says it has been told by the lead investigator on that inquiry that his team was forbidden from interviewing journalists who were paying for criminal records checks, vehicle registration searches, and other illegal practices.
It adds: "Among the targets of these searches were the victims of some of the most notorious crimes and tragedies of the past 15 years. Many of the investigations were perfectly legal, but many others, it is clear, were well outside the law."
In a signed witness statement given to The Independent, Motorman's original lead investigator, a retired police inspector with 30 years' experience, accuses the authorities of serious failings, and of being too "frightened" to question journalists.
The Independent says a Paddington rail crash survivor, relatives of the Dunblane massacre and the parents of murdered Holly Wells were among the ytargets of the investigations by the private detective.
The Independent's media editor Ian Burrell admits having used the services of Steve Whittamore:
He writes: "Steve Whittamore was known all over Fleet Street. I once used him myself, although I had no recollection of this until I saw the entry, tucked away among the 17,000 other transactions with journalists.
"It was from January 1999, a search to confirm the identity and address of a veteran conman and serial fraudster who had taken control of a charity that was being trusted by the Home Office to run entire wings of British prisons. The occupancy search was not illegal, but a phone conversion – without a public interest justification – would have been a breach of the Data Protection Act, although the Act was not in force at that time."
- Political blogger Guido Fawkes has challenged the Independent to reveal the names of journalists identified in the Motorman files. He tweeted today: "If the Indy has the Motorman files it should publish. Lets see who are the criminal journalists. Indy is part of the cover-up otherwise."