Sunday 13 February 2011

The Observer: 'Why we used private investigator'

Fascinating article in the Observer by readers' editor Stephen Pritchard justifying why the paper used the services of a private investigator.

Pritchard's article shows using private investigators is not all about the press invading the privacy of celebrities but can be in the public interest when it helps journalists investigating arms and drug delaing, racketeering landlords, radical Islamic clerics, germ warfare test victims, fugitive war criminals and crooked politicians.

It has often been mentioned that the Observer was high in the list of newspapers named in the 2006 report What Price Privacy? by the Information Commissoner for using the services of a private investigator.

Pritchard writes: "It would be reasonable for Observer readers to ask if their newspaper has been involved in illegal interception, particularly after Louise Bagshawe MP told radio listeners recently that Sky News had reported that there may be evidence that the Observer, among other newspapers, was involved in phone hacking.

"That's a serious allegation to level at a newspaper that has joined its sister, the Guardian, in the pursuit of this story from the start. In reply to Ms Bagshawe, the Observer went on the record to say: "To our knowledge, there has never been any suggestion, let alone evidence, that the Observer has undertaken, commissioned or in any way been involved in this activity."

"So how did this allegation arise? It would seem that the phone-hacking issue has become confused with a report published in 2006 by the Information Commissioner that found several newspapers, including the Observer, had used the services of a private investigator. The report, "What Price Privacy Now?", did not deal with phone-hacking – which is a criminal offence with no public interest defence – but with potential offences under the Data Protection Act, to which there is a public interest defence. And no offence is committed if the information is necessary for the prevention or detection of crime.

"The report sprang out of Operation Motorman, an investigation launched by the Information Commissioner's Office in 2003, in which the records of a number of investigators were seized, including those of JJ Services, run by Steve Whittamore. He worked with associates able to supply him with data from telephone accounts and DVLA records. Alongside the media, his clients included insurance companies, lenders and creditors, local authorities and parties involved in divorce cases.

"Using his logs, which covered the years 1999 to 2003, the ICO devised a ranking of usage by the press, placing the Observer ninth in a league of 32 newspapers and magazines and identifying some 400 journalists from those titles. The documents show the Observer used Whittamore for 103 queries. They reveal he was being asked to establish home addresses and to find telephone numbers, some ex-directory.

"Former reporters told me they were working to uncover illegal arms deals, drugs trafficking, Islamic terrorism and political intrigue; stories they believed to be in the public interest that went on to appear in the paper. They said that the names that turn up in Whittamore's register were people who would be, in the main, hard to find; individuals who would not make themselves available for interview. They felt it was right that they should attempt to find those people and put allegations to them. Sometimes, they would be up against tight deadlines and would use Whittamore because he was quicker at finding phone numbers or converting numbers into subscriber addresses.

"The ICO also showed me handbooks written by private investigators explaining how to "blag" information for their debt collection agency clients. Looking at these methods, it seems likely that many, but not all, ex-directory numbers could have been obtained by blagging."

Pritchard said the policy of the paper is that no inquiries will be made through outside agencies unless there is a compelling public interest to do so.

He also makes the point: "Because the commissioner did not consult any of the titles before publishing his report they were unable to offer a public interest defence of their activities" Pritchard says, however, that last week, the commissioner allowed investigations officer David Clancy to show him the records at his headquarters in Wilmslow, Cheshire.

He concludes: "It's the nature of journalism that some inquiries prove fruitless, but a cross-referencing of targets in Whittamore's register with names that appeared in the paper establishes that many stories in the public interest were being produced. Examples include articles on racketeering landlords, radical Islamic clerics, germ warfare test victims, fugitive war criminals and crooked politicians.

"Where does this leave the paper today? The Observer has said that in the past it has used a private investigator to help it establish stories it believed to be in the public interest. Publishing in the public interest is entirely defensible under the Data Protection Act. And that's the important distinction: intercepting another person's phone messages is just plain illegal."

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