Wednesday, February 24, 2010 

Schadenfreude at the press standards, privacy and libel report.

As a nation, we tend to enjoy schadenfreude, even if we're not familiar with the word itself: recall how the 1997 election was perhaps defined by what became known as the Portillo moment, when one of the most egregious Tories of the age lost his seat in parliament. Maybe the humiliation of that night was what caused Portillo to mellow, to the ultimate benefit of himself as well as the country at large. Jeffrey Archer's downfall, jailed for perjury was another such occasion.

I hope you'll excuse me then feeling such an emotion at the publishing last night of the culture, media and sport committee's report into press standards, privacy and libel, which includes a hefty section on the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. It's not often that parliamentary committees make such damning attacks on the media at large as this one does, nor ones which are so ferociously accurate. Anyone who had looked at the evidence given to the committee by Tom Crone, Colin Myler, Stuart Kuttner and Andy Coulson would have noted just how pathetically inadequate it was: here were 4 men who were either editing the News of the World, combing the copy to ensure that it wasn't either libellous or defamatory, or working on the executive side, and you could have been forgiven for imagining that they had never even entered the paper's offices, such was their apparent ignorance of what had been going on. The committee, to its credit, cut through the swathes of denials and described their evidence as filled with "deliberate obfuscation", while they also seemed to be suffering from "collective amnesia". In a court room they would have been derided by a judge as unreliable witnesses. We should remember after all that these are some of the people who pass judgement on other individuals for their transgressions and who have the power to ruin lives if they choose to do so. It really was about time that they were cut down to size in such a way.

More amusing still, if it wasn't so tragic, has been the response of News International, which has been to respond to the committee's accusations of "deliberate obfuscation" with err, "deliberate obfuscation", as discussed in more detail in this Sun Lies post. It's incredibly lame to continue to claim, as NI has, that both the committee and the Guardian have produced no new evidence of phone-hacking at the paper, which the report itself deals with in detail in paragraphs 492 and 493. Just as low has been to attack the committee system as a whole because of the tenacity with which the MPs have carried out their task, claiming that the entire thing was a stitch-up between the Guardian and the Labour MPs on the committee, out to get Andy Coulson as he's now the chief Tory spin doctor. NI has pounced on the one thing on which the committee didn't unanimously agree upon, which was to mention Coulson's bullying of Matt Driscoll, which the Tory MPs felt wasn't relevant and so divided on political lines on. If the committee was out to get Coulson, then they did a pretty poor job, deciding that he in fact didn't know about the phone hacking, something which is about as ridiculous as it gets. If he didn't know, then he wasn't the editor in any real sense, as someone at the paper was authorising the huge amounts which Glenn Mulcaire was being paid for his work. The only reasonable explanation for why he wouldn't have known was that he deliberately ensured that he didn't, in a ultimately futile attempt to be able to evade responsibility if the hacking was uncovered. The report nonetheless says that he was right to resign.

Most fascinating of all is what this tells you about possible collusion between the Metropolitan police and the Screws. Why was the eventual prosecution limited, despite the evidence of phone-hacking on such an industrial scale to just the interception of voicemail messages of members of the royal family? Was it because they were the easiest to prove, and Mulcaire going too far in targeting the very height of the British establishment, something that simply couldn't be countenanced, or that the Met didn't want to put its "special relationship" with the Murdoch press in peril? Clearly from the Guardian's subsequent freedom of information request we know that the investigations into the phone-hacking went far beyond just that which eventually reached court, and that some of the phone companies involved informed those whose voicemail was believed to have been intercepted. Why then was the Met so swift to dismiss the need for any further investigation or even a proper review of its original work when we now subsequently know that John Yates didn't provide the full picture either in his evidence to the committee or in his initial communications after the Guardian's allegations?

Likewise, the non-investigation by the Press Complaints Commission was as clear an example as you could possibly get of a regulator which was materially misled by the NotW covering itself through embarrassment rather than going after a media organisation which was breaking the law on such a grand scale. The only thing that can be said in its defence is that it's true that much of the media in this country, especially the tabloid side, was operating in a similar fashion at the time, whether through phone-hacking which the NotW excelled at or through the use of private detectives who blagged information from government databases, as exemplified by the Stephen Whittamore prosecution. It has been perhaps unfair to target just the NotW in such a way when the Daily Mail were the leaders in the use of blagged information, but they were smart enough to get someone outside the actual organisation to do their dirty work for them, while the NotW personally employed Mulcaire to perform the "dark arts".

This entire episode has shown up the media in this country for what it actually is, as if it really needed stating: loathsome hypocrites who preach from their pulpits even as they themselves break the law if necessary just to get information which can't even begin to be described as in the public interest, or indeed of any interest whatsoever. There's a huge difference between the methods say which the Guardian used to bring down Jonathan Aitken, which involved diving through dustbins and the interception of voicemail messages of the likes of Gordon Taylor and Max Clifford, either for unutterably lame "kiss and tells" or for personal advantage in the ever ongoing war of spin and counter-spin.

If there's one thing to be taken from this, it's that the committee itself believes that the media has since cleaned up its act, such was the shock of Goodman and Mulcaire being made scapegoats for an industry which was out of control. I am far more sceptical: newspapers, especially the tabloids, in such a cut-throat game and one which is only getting more desperate as circulations fall are only likely to resort to ever more underhand methods to make up the difference. The "dark arts" are now been even more covered up and forced deeper underground, and as the likes of News International remain unaccountable, as epitomised by their response to the committee's findings, nothing is likely to change, as enjoyable as it is to watch them squirm and react in such a way.


The report as a whole is excellent, and it's well worth reflecting on its conclusions and recommendations, but that's for another day. What I will say is that the recommendations made for beefing up the Press Complaints Commission, enabling it to fine newspapers and even potentially stop them publishing for a day for the most serious breaches of the code, while welcome and probably the only way to make self-regulation work, are doomed to failure. The PCC itself rejects any such plans, and in any case, the media groups which fund it would never allow such penalties, which actually might make them think twice before repeating the type of coverage which occurred during the Madeleine McCann hysteria, from being implementable. I've been quoted as being involved in the petition calling for changes to the PCC's code, but while I was on the email discussion list, I made no contribution to the discussion and have not signed anything. This is for the simple reason that it's simply impossible to reform a cartel, which is what the PCC unquestionably is. The only way to deal with cartels is to abolish them. Self-regulation has had more than enough chances to work, and it has failed every single successive test.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2009 

Yates in not trying very hard shocker.

If you needed confirmation that the Met's investigation into the News of the Screws wasn't as thorough as they claimed, and that the "re-investigation" into it after the Graun's allegations was even less so, you only had to see both John Yates and Chief Superintendent Philip Williams before the culture committee today. Apparently the transcript of messages on Gordon Taylor's voicemail, provided for Neville Thurlbeck, wasn't a "viable live inquiry", despite Taylor and his legal adviser subsequently successfully securing the largest privacy payout from News International in legal history in this country. Just to add insult to injury, Yates then went on to say that there was no evidence of Thurlbeck reading the message, or that it could even be another Neville, to which Adam Price acidly stated that they would find out how many Nevilles were working at the Screws at the time before publishing their report.

Price though does seem to have scored a direct hit with his bringing up of the story involving a message left on Harry's voicemail by his brother pretending to be Harry's then girlfriend, Chelsy Davy. Philip Williams stated that although the police had never been able to prove it, again raising the spectre of them not trying very hard, they had "solid reasons" for suspecting that their phones had been tapped into as well as those of the royal aides which led to the conviction of both Mulcaire and Goodman. The can of worms opened up by the Graun has by no means yet been dumped in the dustbin of history.

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Monday, August 31, 2009 

Steve Whittamore's database exposed and Murdoch's victory.

Finally then, we learn some of the identities of those who were targeted by various national newspapers and magazines via Steve Whittamore, the details of which have previously been kept back by the Information Commissioner's office.

And what an obvious collection of searches in the wider public interest they are. Whether blagging their way into BT's databases to get home addresses and ex-directory numbers, the social security system, the DVLA or the police national computer, these are names to conjure with: the former director general of the National Trust, the Southampton football manager, the father of a Big Brother contestant, the former head of Ofsted, Chris Woodhead, MP Clive Betts, Wayne Rooney's mother, Carol Vorderman's brother, Andrew Motion's ex-wife.

To lay off the sarcasm for a moment, some of these uses of a private detective to obtain information could have been in the public interest: politicians from all the main parties are also represented, among them Peter Mandelson, Peter Hain, Chris Patten, Peter Kilfoyle, a couple of then union leaders. Most though are just scurrilous attempts to back up gossip: Joanna Lumley, sainted by the newspapers this year for her role in the campaign to allow Gurkhas to move here, was targeted repeatedly in attempts to find out who the father of her child was. Ian Hislop seems to have been had his details accessed mainly because of a vendetta against him by the paparazzo Jason Fraser, while Frances Lawrence, wife of the murdered headmaster Philip was also attempted to be tracked down, and so the list goes on.

Some of the requests, as Nick Davies notes, appear to be down to either sheer laziness or the need to meet deadlines: some of the information sought is almost certainly freely available on the electoral register. Most though just seem to be fishing expeditions, trying to find what information they can get on someone, possibly to back up a story, possibly just in case they ever need it. The other thing that Guardian's obtaining of the information signifies is that it also knows exactly which journalists or even editors were themselves requesting information, as Whittamore also kept their details, maybe in case he was caught and so he could attempt to bring them down with him. Private Eye has already revealed that Rebekah Wade herself made a personal request to Whittamore for information while she was editor of the News of the World; doubtless there are other "big" names in here that would cause a major stir were they to be released.

It also brings into sharp relief James Murdoch's rant at the weekend:

Above all we must have genuine independence in news media. …independence is characterised by the absence of the apparatus of supervision and dependency. Independence of faction, industrial or political. Independence of subsidy, gift and patronage.

It doesn't of course matter that Murdoch himself is the purest example of patronage in a supposedly free and independent market, but put that to one side. The "independence" and lack of any supervision which he craves leads directly to the abuses detailed above. It leads not to the public service journalism which the BBC provides, but to the trash which fills the Sun and News of the World, which in turn subsidise his "serious" newspapers. His market fundamentalism is just as bad as the BBC would be if it was his caricature of it. Little wonder that News International's reaction to the Guardian's revelations of widespread phone hacking were so ferocious: they'd been caught when they need to be seen, in Tony Blair's parlance, as purer than pure. The sad thing is that with an incoming Conservative government, desperate to buy off the Murdoch press, we might well see Young Murdoch's dreams become something close to reality.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009 

Phone hacking: Rebekah Wade gets snared.

As might have been expected, Private Eye (1241) has some additional information on the phone hacking scandal:

"... There was, however, one bit of evidence he [Nick Davies, at the Graun's appearance before the Culture committee last week] omitted. A file seized by the Information Committee from private investigator Steve Whittamore in 2003, which was later obtained by lawyers for Professional Footballers' Association boss Gordon Taylor, included a personal request for Whittamore to trace someone's address via his phone number. The request came from Rebekah Wade when she was editor of the News of the Screws.

Davies was asked to keep quiet about this by the man who accompanied him to the committee hearing, Grauniad editor Alan Rusbridger, who feared that the skirmishes between the Grauniad and News International would turn into all-out war if there were any mention of the flame-haired weirdo who has now become NI's chief executive.

This may also be why the Guardian has yet to reveal that the secret payment of £700,000 in damages and costs to buy the silence of Gordon Taylor was not a mere executive order. It was decided by the directors of News Group Newspapers Ltd, the NI subsidary which owns the Sun and the Screws, at their board meeting on 10 June last year. If their involvement were revealed, it could cause grave embarrassment for the directors of News Group Newspapers Ltd - not least one James Murdoch."

The latter more or less came out yesterday, when we learned that James Murdoch had known about the settlement and agreed with it. The Wade revelation is though entirely new, and while there is no indication that Wade was using Whittamore for anything specifically illegal, it is an example that editors at the Screws knew about the "dark arts" and even personally used them. That makes it all the more ridiculous that both Andy Coulson and Tom Crone were so ignorant about what was happening all around them. It's also surprising that Wade herself was so tenacious in accusing the Graun of being "deliberately misleading" when they had such information on her; either she knew they wouldn't dare use it, as PE suggests, or she decided to try to tough it out. Either that, or she didn't know.

By far the best comment on yesterday's reprise of Manuel from Fawlty Towers was from Peter Burden, who also interpreted their body language.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009 

Deny nothing, deny everything, know nothing.

After the statement from News International over a week ago, and last Sunday's News of the World editorial, you might have expected that Tom Crone, Colin Myler, Stuart Kuttner and Andy Coulson might have came out defiant and dismissive to the Commons culture committee, especially after last week's bravura performance from Nick Davies.

The News of the World stance appears to have now changed three times. First it was to deny nothing; then it was to deny everything; now it seems to be know nothing. The four men were remarkable reticent, or remarkably ill-informed, perhaps deliberately. The only real fire came when first Tom Crone objected to Tom Watson's presence on the committee (under the "hated" Human Rights Act!), as he's currently taking legal action against the Sun, then Kuttner objected to Philip Davies, as he had connected Kuttner's resignation with the Guardian's revelations.

Predictably, all involved denied knowing anything about the phone hacking; all could be blamed on those who had since left, or those who are still at the paper strangely don't seem to be able to remember anything about it. The junior reporter who wrote the email which Davies revealed last week couldn't remember much about it, and was currently in Peru, Neville Thurlbeck couldn't remember receiving it, and there was no trace of the email on the NotW email system. The more cynical might imagine that was all very convenient. Thurlbeck was only supposed to be involved in the Taylor story with a view to door-stepping Taylor to confirm it. Coulson, later on, confirmed that he couldn't remember anything about a story involving Taylor.

Alongside the denials and non-denials, new information that did come out was that both Mulcaire and Goodman received payments along with their dismissals. You would have thought that being convicted of criminal offences while doing their job would have enabled them to be fired for gross misconduct, but apparently the payments were made in line with employment law and certainly not to buy their silence. James Murdoch, if not Murdoch himself, knew about the settlement with Gordon Taylor. Adam Price, who had discovered a story in the paper by-lined as by Goodman and Thurlbeck had a direct line that could only have come from Prince William's voicemail. Coulson of course couldn't remember the story, and Crone doesn't remember "page 7" stories, while Goodman's lawyer said in court nothing was ever published as a result of the voicemail hacking.

Some of the denials though were just ridiculous. Crone claims that he hadn't even heard of Mulcaire until Goodman was arrested, had never heard of phones being hacked and had never heard of payments for illegal activity. He seems to have been the only other person in Fleet Street, along with Andy Coulson, to have been so ignorant, who also had never met Mulcaire or spoke to him.

The frustrating thing about the whole story and investigation is that the suspicion is everything the Guardian has alleged is true and more besides, but it's simply impossible to prove. The police investigation seems to have based purely on getting a conviction on the count of hacking the royals, despite also looking into, if not prosecuting the other allegations and suggestions that numerous others were also hacked, or at least looked into the possibility of being hacked. Goodman and Mulcaire have been the fall guys for what was almost certainly a culture of contempt for the law in the News of the World newsroom. The ends justified the means, and through the silence and paying off of all involved, it's impossible to prove beyond what we already know. Coulson looks certain to survive, and the damage done to him seems to have been only slight. Tabloid culture also seems likely to remain unchanged, as ever.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009 

News of the Screws turns out to be screwed.

At the weekend the News of the World was unequivocal. According to their leader column, the phone hacking story was almost completely baseless. There were no inquiries, no charges and no evidence. It quoted Andy Hayman, the former Metropolitan head of counter-terrorism, to suggest that the police inquiry had looked into everything alleged, and that Goodman was the only journo who had accessed voicemail messages. In an act of extreme chutzpah, it even called on the Guardian to practice what it preached when it said that "decent journalism had never been more necessary".

All eyes were then on the Commons culture committee, where first Tim Toulmin of the Press Complaints Commission, then Nick Davies, the journalist who broke the story last week and Paul Johnson, Guardian News and Media's deputy editor were to give evidence. As it turned out, Graun editor Alan Rusbridger also turned up, perhaps to underline just how seriously the paper is taking both the story and the investigations triggered by it.

Toulmin, as evidenced by a log of his evidence, hardly did the Press Complaints Commission any favours. It seems remarkably relaxed by the allegations made by the Graun, as it has been from the beginning. The very fact that the PCC, despite claiming to investigate such allegations, cannot demand that those covered by it hand over documents or interview those who have since left the newspaper industry behind, as Andy Coulson had, undermines any attempt to get to the bottom of such indiscretions.

Davies then did the equivalent of setting the session alight. Far from not having any new evidence, as the News of the World had claimed, he distributed two documents (huge PDF, nearly 50 meg) which directly named two News of the World employees who clearly did know about the phone hacking carried out by Glenn Mulcaire. It also quickly became clear why Davies and the paper had not previously released this evidence: Davies said it was both NI's statement at the weekend which had prompted them to, which he said one source had told him was "designed to deceive", and that they had wanted to protect the NotW's lower journos from being treated in the same way as Clive Goodman was. The first is a transcript, heavily redacted by the Graun, by a NotW hack of the messages intercepted from Gordon Taylor's voicemail. The email, which is seen from Mulcaire's Yahoo account, opens with "[T]his is the transcript for Neville". Davies identified this Neville as none other than Neville Thurlbeck, the senior Screws journalist also responsible for the Max Mosley "Nazi" orgy which cost the paper so dearly last year. The second is a contract, between Mulcaire and the NotW, with Mulcaire known by the name Paul Williams, which promises the private investigator £7,000 if a story can be formed around information which he provides on Gordon Taylor. The contract is signed by Greg Miskiw, the former assistant editor of the paper.

This raises significant questions for both News International and the police. Quite clearly, while Mulcaire is the link between both examples of hacking into voicemails, other journalists were involved. Why then, despite the police being well aware that Gordon Taylor had been specifically targeted and that NotW hacks other than Goodman were complicit in that hacking was Goodman the only one who was actually charged? Were charges actually considered against Thurlbeck, for example, as well as the unnamed journo who put together the transcript of Taylor's messages? Why were charges also not considered against Greg Miskiw for promising Mulcaire payment should a story be developed as a result of his breaking the law?

We also learned today, in emails released between the Home Office and John Yates, that Yates' review of the evidence in the case was nothing of the sort. All he was asked do to by the Met commissioner was to "establish the facts and consider wider issues that arose in the reporting from the Guardian". In other words, all he did was look at the conclusions reached and repeat them. He even makes clear that this was not a review.

As for the NotW itself, this makes the following three sentences from its leader at the weekend even more laughable:
So let us be clear. Neither the police, nor our own internal investigations, has found any evidence to support allegations that News of the World journalists have accessed voicemails of any individuals.

Nor instructed private investigators or other third parties to access voicemails of any individual.

Nor found that there was any systemic corporate illegality by any executive to suppress evidence to the contrary.

Finally, this brings it all back to Andy Coulson. If the assistant editor knew, and was commissioning Mulcaire to conduct such trawling expeditions, then are we really meant to believe that Coulson himself didn't know? If he truly didn't, as he and the NotW have persistently claimed, then the reason seems to be because he didn't want to know. Yet as editor of the paper he was the person ultimately responsible for what those below him got up to. Either way, he was the person in charge when those below him blatantly and deliberately breached the law in attempts to get stories which were clearly not even slightly in the public interest. David Cameron should be once again continuing his chief spin doctor's position.

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Friday, July 10, 2009 

The Graun vs News International: fight!

Battle then has finally been joined in what could turn out to be a titanic struggle between News International and the Guardian. After two days of silence and not bothering to dispute any of the Nick Davies' initial report, Rebekah Wade released a letter written to the head of the Commons Media Select Committee, John Wittingdale (PDF), and News International as a whole has released a point by point supposed refutation of the Guardian's claims.

To go from denying almost nothing to denying everything is quite a step change, and one which could yet turn out to be disastrous for News International. Wade's letter is especially laughable, and further evidence perhaps of why she has long been shielded from the public eye, something she won't be able to do once she becomes chief executive. Notably, Wade informs Wittingdale that Colin Myler, Andy Coulson's replacement as editor of the NotW and Tom Crone, the paper's longstanding legal counsel will appear before his committee, and not just to give evidence but "refute" the Guardian's allegations that voicemail hacking was endemic at the paper. The fact that Myler hadn't been working at the paper prior to his appointment as editor doesn't inspire confidence that he'll be an any better witness than Les Hinton was previously. As for Tom Crone, if his presence is meant to inspire dread in the committee, they should remember that it was he who advised Mazher Mahmood to pursue George Galloway for publishing his image on the net following his failure to entrap him, while his performance at the Max Mosley trial as the paper's counsel helped the paper to its defeat. Myler himself also gave evidence that hardly helped the paper's case.

Wade goes on to claim that the Guardian has "substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public". That is a very serious allegation to make, and one which Wade provides no evidence to back up. It's also rather hilarious, making you wonder whether News International is so peeved because that's their job. Even those of us who are severe critics of tabloid journalism as a whole, and especially Wade's work, would baulk at alleging that she has deliberately misled readers on stories such as that involving Alfie Patten. The hypocrisy and irony also keeps on coming, as Wade complains that the Guardian is "repeating allegations by such sources as unnamed Met officers". If it wasn't for unnamed police sources, the Sun wouldn't have published such brilliant exclusives as the claim that Rochelle Holness was dismembered while alive, which is unbelievably still uncorrected on their website, or that Janet Hossain was found dead wearing S&M gear, both of which were untrue and hurtful beyond belief to the relatives who were trying to come to terms with their loss.

Next, she claims that both the Guardian and television coverage of Nick Davies' initial report has "deliberately or recklessly" combined references to the Peter Taylor and Prince William voicemail hacking with the revelations in the Information Commissioner's two reports, and that there is no connection between the two. This is inaccurate on both points: most of the references made to the ICO reports have been clear, while even if there is no direct connection between the two separate cases, the work of Steve Whittamore is an example of just what the tabloids and some broadsheets have been up to, and undermines the claims made by the NotW that Clive Goodman was just one bad apple, when at least 19 separate NotW hacks made use of Whittamore.

The News International statement is rather more robust, although still full of holes and in places deliberately pulls its punches. It also seems as if the NotW itself was kept well abreast of the police investigation, and robustly claims that it's the police that confirm that the Guardian's allegations are inaccurate. Even tonight though it has began to fall apart, following further responses from the Graun. The statement claims:

Apart from matters raised in the Mulcaire and Goodman proceedings, the only other evidence connecting News of the World reporters to information gained as a result of accessing a person's voicemail emerged in April 2008, during the course of the Gordon Taylor litigation. Neither this information nor any story arising from it was ever published. Once senior executives became aware of this, immediate steps were taken to resolve Mr Taylor's complaint.

From our own investigation, but more importantly that of the police, we can state with confidence that, apart from the matters referred to above, there is not and never has been evidence to support allegations that:
  • News of the World journalists have accessed the voicemails of any individual.
  • News of the World or its journalists have instructed private investigators or other third parties to access the voicemails of any individuals.
  • There was systemic corporate illegality by News International to suppress evidence.

Yet tomorrow the Guardian reveals that one of the others that News International settled with was Jo Armstrong, a legal adviser at the PFA, who also had her voicemail hacked into. If she isn't being included along with Peter Taylor, then that's another case which the organisation has conveniently forgotten about. The statement goes on:

It goes without saying that had the police uncovered such evidence, charges would have been brought against other News of the World personnel. Not only have there been no such charges, but the police have not considered it necessary to arrest or question any other member of News of the World staff.

Considering then the NotW admits that Peter Taylor's voicemail was illegally accessed, why weren't the journalists involved in the tapping of Peter Taylor's phone considered for prosecution as Mulcaire was, when Goodman had no involvement in it? Is it because he informed them that he intended to take his own legal action and so they left it at that or otherwise? The situation remains that News International's relationship with the police is incredibly cosy. The fact also that it took far longer for NI to look through the evidence before making their statement than it did for Yates of the Yard furthers the suspicion that the police have no intention of endangering that relationship unless forced to.

Based on the above, we can state categorically in relation to the following allegations which have been made primarily by the Guardian and widely reported as fact by Sky News, BBC, ITN and others this week:
  • It is untrue that officers found evidence of News Group staff, either themselves or using private investigators, hacking into "thousands" of mobile phones.
  • It is untrue that apart from Goodman, officers found evidence that other members of News Group staff hacked into mobile phones or accessed individuals' voicemails.
  • It is untrue that there is evidence that News Group reporters, or indeed anyone, hacked into the telephone voicemails of John Prescott.
  • It is untrue that “Murdoch journalists” used private investigators to illegally hack into the mobile phone messages of numerous public figures to gain unlawful access to confidential personal data, including: tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemised phone bills.
  • It is untrue that News Group reporters have hacked into telephone voicemail services of various footballers, politicians and celebrities named in reports this week.
  • It is untrue that News of the World executives knowingly sanctioned payment for illegal phone intercepts.

This is instructive as much by how it words each denial as the denial is itself. It is perhaps untrue that "thousands" of phones were hacked into; maybe it was only hundreds and the Guardian's source exaggerated slightly. It might be that there were
attempts to hack into thousands of phones, rather than that thousands were successfully compromised. It also might be untrue that journalists personally hacked into mobile phones; after all, they had Mulcaire and doubtless others paid handsomely to do that for them. What exactly was Mulcaire doing other than blagging and hacking which made him worth £2,000 a week, with extra for specific work? No hack other than star columnists and the executive staff themselves would earn such massive remuneration. Similarly, if John Prescott's voicemail wasn't hacked into, or wasn't even attempted to be hacked into, how did the Guardian know specifically which month it was said to have been done, unless their source was expert at covering his tracks? The next denial is the most remarkable of all. No one claimed that the NotW hacked into voicemail messages in order to get access to personal data; they had other private detectives who blagged their way in to do that.

All of this is potentially setting NI up for a massive fall. They must be pretty damn certain that the Met's investigation doesn't contradict their denials, and that the investigation is not going to enter the public domain, because if it does, one imagines that the Guardian will do a rerun of their Jonathan Aitken front page, except with the headline changed from "He lied and lied and lied" to "They lied and lied and lied". Instead, they must be incredibly confident that all that's going to come of this is some further legal claims by those named, in which they will only pay out again in return for silence and confidentiality.

The statement then rehashes Wade's comments about the ICO investigations:
The report concerned the activities of a private investigator who, between April 2001 and March 2003, supplied information to 32 newspapers and magazines including, incidentally, the Guardian's sister newspaper, The Observer, which according to the Information Commissioner was ninth worst "offender" out of the 32. The information supplied was deemed to be in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998.

The Guardian though made no attempt to hide the fact that the Observer had featured on Richard Thomas's list, unlike the Sun, which unsurprisingly didn't so much as mention the IC's revelations. The Times meanwhile printed part of the list, while making no mention of the fact that its parent company also owned the Sunday Times and News of the World, while snipping the list so that the Sun didn't feature on it.

Perhaps the most revealing part of the statement is left until near the end:

Since February 2007, News International has continued to work with its journalists and its industry partners to ensure that its journalists fully comply with both the relevant legislation and the rigorous requirements of the PCC’s Code of Conduct.

Since Feburary 2007. In other words, NI is making no attempt to defend Andy Coulson, who isn't so much as mentioned. If there was funny business going on, it was his fault and no one else's, and our executives are blameless. Speaking of which:

Finally, we would like to make it clear that despite the Guardian suggesting otherwise, the departure of Managing Editor Stuart Kuttner has no connection whatsoever with the events referred to above. The Guardian were informed of this position from the outset and chose to mislead the British public.

Except the Guardian did no such thing. The closest it came to alleging any connection was this article by James Robinson.

In the end, it might come down to who you're more likely to believe. Is it News International and the News of the World, which we now know repeatedly did what it previously denied it, and attempted through cosy confidentiality to deny the public and other potential victims from knowing about its payouts, or is it the Guardian, whose original report has at least partially now been fully vindicated by NI themselves? I know what my choice is.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009 

The dark arts come back to haunt Andy Coulson.

In a way, it's surprising that the "phone hacking" story has only gone nuclear now. The only real new information Nick Davies provided yesterday was that the News of the World had to pay out to three different people after their messages were intercepted, about which News International must be absolutely seething; that potentially "thousands" of celebrities and politicians had their voicemail illegally accessed; and that, perhaps in good faith, News International executives misled a parliamentary select committee, not to mention also the Press Complaints Commission and the public.

While most are only following this story back to when Clive Goodman was found, with the help of the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, to have intercepted the messages of Prince William, as well as other flunkies in the royal household, it in fact goes further back to the arrest of Stephen Whittamore, a private detective who was used by almost every national tabloid, as well as a few broadsheets, to gain information not just from cracking into mobile phones but also from national databases which he had more than a knack of blagging into. Whittamore, for reasons known only to himself, kept a complete database of every request from every newspaper and from every journalist, a database which was then seized by the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, and released back in December 2006, albeit sans the details concerning the journalists themselves. The News of the World wasn't even top of the list, although there were still 19 journalists making 182 separate transactions. Top was the Daily Mail, clearly Whittamore's top clients, with a staggering 58 separate hacks or employees making a total of 952 requests for information. The ICO's reports, What Price Privacy? and What Price Privacy Now? (both PDFs) went into further details on the extent of blagging.

The most comprehensive account of Whittamore's arrest and subsequent trial was in... Flat Earth News by none other than Nick Davies. Davies dedicates an entire chapter in the book to what became known in various newspaper offices as "the dark arts". Some, it must be stated, have used "the dark arts" quite legitimately in stories which were clearly in the public interest, especially during the 90s. Equally clearly however it soon got completely out of control, and the laziest of journalists turned to these "private investigators" as their first port of call, even just to gain home addresses which were otherwise freely available. The key difference between Whittamore and Goodman and Mulcaire is that they were prosecuted under different legislation. Whittamore was tried under the Data Protection Act, having breached and blagged his way into numerous national databases, including the police's, which was his undoing, while Goodman and Mulcaire, having only been identified as gaining access to mobile phone voicemail boxes, were tried under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. The then Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, had wanted the law tightened so that journalists caught using private detectives to access national databases would face a potential jail sentence; this was fought off through lobbying by Associated Newspapers, News International and the Telegraph group, which remarkably today said nothing about the Guardian's new revelations, although tomorrow it does have a follow up.

It is then ridiculous that this is the Graun out to get Andy Coulson in some sort of pact with Labour, as some Tory bloggers have claimed, especially considering just how critical the paper has been recently of Gordon Brown. Rather, this is simply good old-fashioned journalism by Nick Davies, following his investigation up to the bitter end, and having found an uncannily good source that told him about the payouts to Gordon Taylor and others. It's also remarkable that News International has not denied a single thing about the Guardian story, instead simply stating that they are bound by the confidentiality of the settling of the cases.

What does stink however, and is even more remarkable has been the Metropolitan police's amazingly fast review of the evidence, which established in double quick time that there was no need for a reinvestigation, and that John Prescott's phone, as alleged by the Graun, had not been one of those hacked into. Before passing judgement and looking into potential conspiracy theories, we should note that we're still uncertain just how far the Met's investigation into the hacking and blagging which was going on in Wapping went. Nick Davies on Newsnight made his own thinking clear on John Yates' statement, suggesting that they had narrowed it down specifically to that which Clive Goodman was involved in, or at least had so that they wouldn't have to look again. Instead, as the papers revealed during Gordon Taylor's civil action suggested, the police appear to have conducted a thorough investigation into what had been going on as a whole, and this uncovered the at least hundreds of examples, if not thousands as the Guardian has said, of phones being hacked into.

Whatever the case, that Yates has reviewed the case so quickly, not even taking a whole day to delve into what could well have hundreds if not thousands pages of evidence, suggests that the police were minded from the outset only to go after the hacking of the royals. That, it seems, was crossing an invisible line. It's worth remembering that the Metropolitan police and indeed the police as a whole have had remarkably good relations, not just with the News of the World, but also with the News International stable as a whole. There was Rebekah Wade back in 2003 inadvertently spilling the beans that her papers had previously paid the police for information, not to mention the times when the Met was more than willing to believe the line that was spun at them by Mahzer Mahmood, both in the Victoria Beckham kidnap plot that never was, and in the "red mercury" plot that equally never existed. Then there was the Forest Gate terror raid, where the News of the World was first provided with mugshots of the brothers involved and of an account which claimed one of them had in fact shot the other, rather than the police shooting one of them, which was completely untrue. Later the paper was leaked claims that a search of a computer from the home and of a mobile phone revealed child pornography, although no prosecution was forthcoming. It would be no surprise whatsoever if the Met simply decided that it was in no one's interests, and certainly not theirs, that anyone other than Goodman and his partner in crime should be the ones to cop the blame. Whether the Crown Prosecution Service will feel the same way remains to be seen, and their announcement that they would be reviewing the evidence might yet reveal them as being more willing to take on the might of News International.

To treat Andy Coulson with some fairness which he perhaps doesn't deserve, it's unfortunate that this entire mess has been raked over now. It was utterly laughable from the very beginning that he didn't know what was going on right under his nose; the simple fact that Mulcaire was being paid such vast sums of money for his work, over £100,000 a year, far in advance of what the hacks themselves would have been earning, and this in an organisation in which the ultimate authority is notoriously parsimonious about how his money is spent, makes a nonsense of the idea that he didn't know what he was doing. What should have happened back in January 2007 was a complete audit of the press by its regulatory body, a thorough investigation in which it demanded to know just how widespread such practices were, and from which specific guidelines, if not legislation, would be drawn up to stop the casual breaking of the law in search of such petty and not in the public interest information. Instead it almost seems as if there was an agreement between the PCC and the News International that as long as Andy Coulson also went, it would say nothing and everything could return to normal, as Roy Greenslade insinuates might well have happened. This was just a one-off, even if the Steve Whittamore raid proved comprehensively that it wasn't.

Indeed, if we were being fair this wouldn't be about the News of the World, Murdoch or Coulson at all. This would about a press that is getting ever more desperate as its condition weakens. Perhaps the excesses which it once resorted to, especially during the 80s, are not quite being plumbed, although the Alfie Patten case, the Sunday Express's Dunblane story and now this all certainly come close. The one thing that is now needed is confirmation that these practices, except in cases of the utmost public interest, have ceased. The PCC has shown itself to be woefully inadequate to confirm just that. Self-regulation, at least in its current toothless form, has failed. If Coulson wants to save his job, he perhaps ought to be telling his boss that those hated privacy laws might now be needed after all.

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Friday, March 06, 2009 

Ian Kerr and Stephen Whittamore.

It's interesting to note that the media is taking a far greater interest in the exploits of Ian Kerr, a private investigator who sold information on individuals and their political views to construction companies as part of what was almost certainly a blacklist, than they did in the somewhat similar case of Stephen Whittamore. Both were selling information on, the difference was that Kerr dealt in workers while Whittamore dealt with whoever newspaper journalists wanted him to, and that also meant gaining access to state databases, which it appears that Kerr did not.

Also worth noting has been the rather tepid response of the government itself. This couldn't possibly be because of the 40 or more companies, a good percentage of them conduct much of their business with the government via the private finance initiative, could it? Technically, this means that the state itself has been excluding workers on no more information that hearsay, something which it only otherwise practices when it comes the British National Party, and even then only in the police and the prison service, which is at least somewhat defensible if still troubling. In any event, Henry Porter as usual nails it.

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Friday, April 04, 2008 

The tabloids always win part one.

The tabloids have won. They always win:

Tabloid newspapers will be able to carry on using private detectives without fear of jail sentences after a government climb-down was confirmed last night.

Ministers decided to table a last-minute amendment to the current criminal justice bill under which a longstanding promise to impose jail sentences for data theft will be dropped.

The clause will remain in the bill but the threat of jail will be suspended for now. It's another "compromise" which isn't anything like a compromise: the tabloids will just carry on as they have before, laughing at how easy it is to get the government to roll over when they repeatedly break the law and lie about how it would "affect investigative journalism", the kind they haven't practised for decades.

As David Leigh, the Guardian's head of investigations, says on CiF:

Industry lobbyists have claimed that journalists might be in unjustified peril because they often commission inquiries not being certain where they will lead, and therefore might be unable to establish a public interest defence. This is the purest hogwash. If you buy Amy Winehouse's mother's mobile phone records, say, then you know perfectly well there is no public interest involved.

Not to mention how it often doesn't even lead anywhere. Ken Livingstone notes that he's been one of those most targeted by these kind of "investigations" before, getting into his bank details, with Steve Whittamore and his gang being involved also, and still none of them managed to find out until very recently that he had fathered another three children, with him breaking the news to kill the paper's "scoop".

As one Whitehall figure said this week: "These media barons - just how much power do they have?"

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008 

The dark arts and the real power in the land.

As mentioned in one of the previous posts, the government appears to be backtracking about making the buying and selling of private data an imprisonable offence. This is almost certainly a direct result of lobbying by Associated Newspapers, News International and even apparently the Telegraph group, all under the pretext that it would have a chilling effect on investigative journalism.

That claim and defence is rubbish. Journalism in the clear public interest is already protected, and if the Guardian was duly concerned, then the very journalists that got the story, David Leigh and Rob Evans, would be incredibly worried, as it was they that broke the story over BAE's Saudi slush fund, which would have almost certainly employed some of the methods that the information commissioner, Richard Thomas, wants to crack down on, as did their investigations into Jonathan Aitken in the 1990s.

Rather what bill is meant to target is the widespread use, especially by the tabloids, but also increasingly by the broadsheets, to employ private detectives who through their own contacts sell information, often from government or public services databases, direct to journalists. This all stems directly from the case of Steve Whittamore, the private detective who was raided back in 2003. When the police subsequently went through his computer, they found that he had kept exact details of every transaction with each publication, information which the information commissioner subsequently released back in December of 2006. It showed that the Daily Mail alone used his services 952 times, with almost 60 different journalists making separate requests. At Whittamore's trial the prosecution outlined that his associate Paul Marshall had used Scotland Yard's computer databases to access information for newspapers on two actresses from EastEnders, the family of Ricky Tomlinson, and a former Big Brother contestant, alongside information on Ken Livingstone and his partner and Bow Crow, head of the RMT. Despite this, Whittamore and his friend were all given conditional discharges, as a result of a previous ruling in a trial involving Marshall, where the judge accepted that he was seriously ill and about to die. Whittamore was meant to face another case brought by the Information Commission itself, but the cost to the public purse, and the fact that all the men could point to the previous trial and the sentences given there meant that they forced to drop it. They all in effect completely got away with it.

This isn't then out of high principles and making sure that investigative journalism, what little of it remains in the British press, is protected. This is so the tabloids and others like them can continue to stalk and chase celebrities and their families if necessary, and that as soon as a major crime and happens and suspects are named that they can get as much information on them as they possibly can. As Nick Davies outlines in the entire chapter on this in Flat Earth News, these are known as the "dark arts". One ex-Mail journalist told Davies that they used to use the social security computer as if it were an extension of the Daily Mail library, just having to phone their contact who would then supply the information or the persons with the same name in around five minutes time, with their home address, phone numbers and maybe their workplace. Another said that if the Mail comes after you, they'll get all your information, phone numbers, schoolmates, what's on your credit card and every call from your phone. This was probably how the Mail recently turned up at the home of Fiona MacKeown, breaking in and taking photographs of her murdered daughter Scarlett's "bedroom".

Some of this isn't of course high-tech or even strictly breaking the law. Clive Goodman, jailed after he was caught "hacking" into the mobile phone of Prince William, just used the well-known trick of phoning his voicemail and then seeing if the password was unchanged, as most are, enabling him to "intercept" his messages. Goodman went down because the charges were brought under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, not the Data Protection Act, which deals with the "blagging" offences and those involving the breaching of databases. This measure was really about bring the punishments into line, and upping the costs of getting caught so that there's far more of a deterrent. Getting a conditional discharge or an "unlimited" fine won't stop private detectives that have been raking in hundreds of thousands of pounds through such work, but a prison sentence will.

It's little wonder then that the Mail and Sun groups are so opposed to this measure. It threatens their incredibly lucrative phishing expeditions which so contribute to their celebrity exposes and who's shagging who nonsense which arrives on Sunday mornings. One of Gordon Brown's dearest friends just happens to be Paul Dacre, so much so that Brown has even given him a review to overlook. As for the Conservatives, the editor of the News of the Screws at the time of Goodman's offences, for which he too had resign was none other than Andy Coulson, now their chief spin doctor. Aside from protecting the privacy of celebrities and those caught up in events beyond their control, this is another reason to oppose the continuing obsession with databases across government and public services sphere. The amount of information that'll be on the ID card database has journalists and private dicks drooling already, as will the Spine, the NHS database that'll have the records of every patient on, not to mention ContactPoint, the children's database, which might have celebrities' children omitted from it, directly because of the fear of that information being sold on to the highest bidder. It just does go to continue to show that those who have the most power in Britain are not the politicians themselves, but the media barons and their editors who have obsessions with crime and criminals, except when themselves commit it in the pursuit of a good story. The information commissioner had little chance when coming up against them.

Related post:
Chicken Yoghurt - Newspapers and personal data: a level playing field at last

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Thursday, December 14, 2006 

Revealed: press buying and selling private information on a grand scale follow-up.

I intended to write so much today, but as usual the best laid plans are the ones that get binned.

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:

PublicationNumber of transactionsNumber of journalists / clients positively identified using services
Daily Mail95258
Sunday People80250
Daily Mirror681 45
Mail on Sunday266 33
News of the World18219
Sunday Mirror14325
Best Magazine13420
Evening Standard1301
The Observer1034
Daily Sport624
Sunday Times527
The People3719
Daily Express367
Weekend Magazine (Daily Mail)304
Sunday Express298
The Sun244
Closer Magazine225
Sunday Sport151
Night and Day (Mail on Sunday)92
Sunday Business News81
Daily Record72
Saturday (Express)71
Sunday Mirror Magazine61
Real Magazine41
Woman’s Own42
Daily Mirror Magazine32
Mail in Ireland31
Daily Star24
Marie Claire21
Personal Magazine11
Sunday World11
(Many thanks to Spy Blog for the table.)

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.

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