Revealed: press buying and selling private information on a grand scale follow-up.
While today has proved that this is the most disgusting, despicable and reprehensible government that this country has suffered since the last one, the overwhelming torrent of planned news to overshadow the prime minister's questioning by police has also obliterated the information commissioner's publishing of the report (PDF) into how the nation's newspapers (and magazines) are buying and selling personal and private information from government databases on a grand scale. As expected, his full listing was if anything more damning of the press in this country than the condensed one:
|Publication||Number of transactions||Number of journalists / clients positively identified using services|
|Mail on Sunday||266||33|
|News of the World||182||19|
|Weekend Magazine (Daily Mail)||30||4|
|Night and Day (Mail on Sunday)||9||2|
|Sunday Business News||8||1|
|Sunday Mirror Magazine||6||1|
|Daily Mirror Magazine||3||2|
|Mail in Ireland||3||1|
The scale, through just this one private detective, is astounding. Best magazine, published by Hearst, had 20 different employees buying information from Stephen Whittamore, who himself was receiving the information from at least 3 others; one another private investigator, one a retired cop and the other an "civilian communications officer", whatever that is, who was based at Tooting police station. The information sold came at a price of at least £75 a time; if all of Best magazine's queries cost that amount, then they alone had provided Whittamore and his associates with £10,050. The Daily Mail's costs alone, not considering the other requests handled for other Rothermere publications, on that same equation, would have come to £71,400.
Best magazine, for those of you who like me had never heard of it, is according to the Grauniad aimed at middle-aged women. The only website I could find that's vaguely associated with it is this one here, which has the above logo with a link below to a survey which is no longer open. No doubt all of its transactions into investigating "real life", "diets" and "looks" were in the public interest. The next mag on the list not directly associated with a newspaper is Closer, a celebrity gossip piece of effluent owned by Emap. Next up is Real (published by "Essential Publishing", who have an absolutely hideous flash site here) which I had also never heard of. Real describes itself thusly:
Published fortnightly, REAL is unlike any other title in the UK magazine market. It is a magazine that is beautiful to look at yet relevant to women's lives. It combines the upmarket aspirations of the women's glossy monthlies with the "relevance" of the weekly titles. REAL deals with relationships and issues closest to women's hearts and events that could change their lives.In other words, it's a celebrity gossip magazine which likes to think it's above the likes of Heat and Closer. How these relationships and issues that could change lives necessitated breaking the law is unclear. Woman's Own, who had two writers using Whittamore's talents, is the standard "housewives" magazine, owned by IPC Media, who are in turn owned by TimeWarner. Marie Claire, like Best owned by Hearst, had one lone hack paying Whittamore, while Personal, which I can't find from a quick search and can't be bothered to look deeper for, also had one journalist using the services provided once.
Most of these type of magazines only have a generally small staff of writers, often relying more on freelancers. For 20 different individuals from Best to then have used Whittamore is astonishing. Almost everyone there must have been in on what was going on, and just what sort of information were they buying that was needed for such a publication? It'll be no surprise then to learn that Best's current editor, Michelle Hather, made no comment when asked for one by the Grauniad.
It'll be of little surprise also to learn that not a single one of today's tabloids printed a single word about Thomas's publication of their nefarious dealings. The Daily Mail, who came top of the league, was defensive when asked about its journalists' use of Whittamore, but didn't take up the defense in print. Neither did the Sun or the Mirror. The Express's Paul Ashford was notably unhelpful when asked for a comment, and the Express and Star don't provide an archive or even properly searchable websites to see if they covered the story, so I think it's more than reasonable to assume they didn't.
As for the broads, or ex-broads, the Guardian was by far the most open, admitting that its journalists on its sister, the Observer, had used Whittamore, and Roger Alton, notorious for his foul mouth, managed to string a statement together without swearing. The Times did report the story, but coyly didn't print the table in full, so missing out the Sun's entry, and didn't comment on its sister publications' buying of information. The Telegraph covered it along with a report on a trial of a "blagger" earlier in the week, as it had already done online, while the Independent doesn't appear to have covered it, although I may be wrong.
This might be the necessary kick up the backside that'll show journalists they can't get away with such low-level skullduggery; as the Telegraph reports, one of those who was informed that his car number plate was searched for had simply been decorating the home of a lottery winner. Or it may just simply show them that they can get away it; their publications might get a slight amount of embarrassment, but only from those who read the broads or blogs and care about it. Their readers, the ones that are the ones most likely to have their privacy infringed, are instead in the dark. The sentences handed down to Whittamore and others, a 2 year discharge for data-mining police databases, was letting them get away with it, even if they also faced charges in a similar case. As stated in yesterday's post, this is only likely to get worse with the emergence of the NHS Spine and the ID card database, if it ever gets up and running.
By coincidence, today also had a ruling that Media Grauniad are describing as possibly the beginning of the end for gossip rags and the tabloids celebrity worship, as "the court ruled that someone's right to protect their private life outweighs someone else's freedom to tell their story, unless there is a "very real" public interest." It looks potentially chilling for the freedom to report scandals, almost certainly going too far if similar cases are now brought and succeed, and the fact that McKennitt's lawyers were Carter-Ruck, notorious for their stifling effect on Private Eye investigations, nicknamed Carter-Fuck as result, is also not a good sign. There is a balance to be struck, and it hasn't been found yet.