Journalism ITV Data & Privacy

What price transparency now?


By Iain Hepburn

April 4, 2012 | 12 min read

It’s interesting to see Guardian News and Media’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger and acclaimed reporter Nick Davies are to receive the 2012 Media Society award for their coverage of the phone hacking story - reporting which has changed the very nature of the media landscape and demanded answers of people at the very top of the industry.

Guardian News and Media editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger

So let me take you back nine months or so, filthy assistants, to a piece on my old blog - now sadly lost to the ether - as the phone hacking scandal was reaching its apex and the News of the World was about to close up shop.

As the paper continued to turn the screws on Wapping, and the Murdoch family faced an uncomfortable day at the Select Committee, I posed an octet of questions to Mr Rusbridger about the Observer’s own track record when it comes to abusing the privacy of others.

Specifically, it came after Mr Rusbridger was quick to point out the inaccuracy of Rebekah Brooks in citing the Guardian as being on Information Commissioners Office’s 2006 report which listed the worst blaggers on Fleet Street.

As he correctly pointed out, the Guardian doesn’t appear on that list - but the Observer makes the top 10. The questions, then, that I put to him were:

  1. Roger Alton, Observer editor at the time of the ICO report, admitted that when it came to making public interest cases for hiring a private investigator, “it is possible that some of the inquiries did not sufficiently fit that criterion”. Do you agree with him that the paper went too far in some cases?
  2. Did the Scott Trust or GNM take any disciplinary action against Roger Alton following his admission?
  3. What nature of internal inquiries or investigations were undertaken by GNM or the Scott Trust at the time of, or in the aftermath of, the ICO report into the Observer’s behaviour?
  4. The Observer’s readers editor confirmed by email earlier this year that the four journalists cited by the ICO report into Motorman were no longer with the paper. Will you identify these journalists, and reveal whether they were disciplined over the use of a private investigator that their editor felt went too far?
  5. Has GNM or the Scott Trust contacted and apologised to directly those who were targeted in the instances Alton felt “did not sufficiently fit that criterion”?
  6. In your evidence to the DCMS committee hearing on press self-regulation in 2009 you made then comment that a defence of public interest is “difficult to pin down”. As such, do you feel legitimate public interest defences can be made for each of the 100-plus instances of blagging by the Observer cited in the ICO report?
  7. While the Guardian does not appear on the list of papers cited by the ICO report, are you confident that nobody on the paper’s staff has ever used a private investigator to obtain confidential material in contravention of the Data Protection Act for which a public interest defence cannot be made?
  8. What safeguards has GNM put in place to prevent a repeat of the situation Roger Alton admitted to?

After weeks of no reply - despite prompts not just from me but from other learned members of the journalism and legal blogging communities - Mr Rusbridger was kind enough to reply while on holiday and forward my queries elsewhere. Thus it was that, a few days later, I finally received this reply from GNM managing editor Jan Thompson:

With regard to the specific questions that you raise, it is our understanding that the Information Commissioner’s Office has handed over all the documents from its 2003 investigation into the use of private investigators to the Metropolitan Police team that is investigating phone-hacking; see for example where it is reported that:

“The ICO has confirmed that it responded to a request from the Met and passed it all the evidence it had gathered as part of Operation Motorman in March of this year.

“The Motorman files were handed over to the Metropolitan Police three months ago,” a spokeswoman said. “What was handed over was all of the information, all of the files, all of the evidence gathered in relation to the case.”

Separately, as you will also know, the prime minister has asked Sir Brian Leveson to conduct an independent judicial inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. In one of his few specific commitments, Sir Brian said one aspect of the inquiry may be why “no action was taken in 2006 following a report by the information commissioner” into the use of private detectives and eavesdropping.

Indeed, according to a report on the BBC’s website, , Lord Justice Leveson,“will be looking at the extent to which newspapers used private detectives instead of journalists to ferret out information.”

Because of the ongoing police investigation and the terms of reference of Sir Brian Leveson’s inquiry I regret that we believe it would be inappropriate to answer any specific questions relating to Motorman / the ICO at the moment and therefore we cannot comment on the specific matters you raise. I do hope you will understand and appreciate our reluctance at the moment to do anything that might be regarded as pre-empting either a police investigation or a judicial inquiry.

And that, it would seem, was that. The paper that didn’t let up on News International’s bad behaviour didn’t want to discuss its own alleged misdemeanors because it may have an impact on the Leveson inquiry, although that hasn’t stopped the continuing reporting of the matter by the media staff at Kings Place, and elsewhere.

But the issue of Motorman, and the behaviour of the whole of Fleet Street, hasn’t gone away - and nor has the questions over the Observer’s behaviour. I understand it was raised during a recent SNP event attended by senior GNM figures, where the matter was given an unceremonious brush-off.

Yet the issue has gained substantially more momentum over the last couple of weeks. Brian Cathcart of the Hacked Off campaign got the ball rolling by calling for the publication of invoices relating to the Motorman inquiry, saying last month:

“It identifies the members of the public who were targets of this activity – thousands of them, although only a handful have been told it happened. This secret has been secret too long, and the prevailing situation at the inquiry, of nudge-nudge-wink-wink exclusive knowledge, cannot be justified legally or morally. The only beneficiaries are journalists who have done wrong and their employers, and a public inquiry into press conduct has no business covering up wrongdoing by journalists.”

And things took a further interesting twist last week when ITV News published damaging and highly detailed listings of exactly how much each of the main media players in the country spent on blagging by private investigator Steve Whittamore - including the Observer.

At the time, the Observer said in a statement to ITV:

“Whittamore's papers were described by the ICO as 'deeply obscure', but The Observer has always been clear that, as far as it can tell from the selected papers it has been shown, it used Whittamore to obtain information for stories it believed to be in the public interest.”

Which was very interesting, as it seems to go somewhat against the assertation by former editor of the Observer - and the man who was in charge at the time under scrutiny, Roger Alton, that “it is possible that some of the inquiries did not sufficiently fit that criterion”.

The Observer’s statement to ITV goes on to admit “that it is not possible to be absolutely certain that everything he did for the paper would have met a strict definition of 'the public interest'. Therefore, since the publication of the ICO’s report in 2006, we have strengthened the process by which the use of private investigators is approved.”

Well, that’s all right then. And I’m sure the victims of the paper that the former editor admits did not ‘sufficiently fit that criterion’ of public interest don’t mind in the slightest.

Now, critics will, no doubt, accuse me of trolling the Guardian, of whataboutery, or seeking to distract from the alleged criminality that took place. But, while I’ve certainly been critical of GMG in the past, there’s a far bigger and deeper issue here that needs to be addressed. And to make it, here’s comedian and presenter Jon Holmes

“The problem is that the Guardian go out of their way to set themselves up as the good guys. The way they paint it from their chattering class sun-dried freshly baked foccacia castle of ethics built securely up there on the moral high ground is that they’re fighting not just a battle of left against right, but waging a war of good against evil, dark versus light...”

Holmes made that comment on The Now Show at the turn of the year, during a piece about the Guardian’s award-winningly yet controversial reporting of the Dowler voicemail hacking - the one for which Rusbridger and Davies were picking up an award this week

He goes on to say:

“If you’re on the moral high ground you have to make sure the ground you’re on is super sure or you’ll end up sinking to their level. When the Leveson Inquiry had just begun there was a story on the Guardian’s front page that said ‘Sun journalists doorstep Leveson lawyer’. They hadn’t, the Guardian had to apologise.

“Back in July there was a story on the Guardian’s front page that said ‘Sun journalists access Gordon Brown’s son’s medical records’. They hadn’t, the Guardian had to apologise, and the result is that now they’ve got Lord Leveson investigating their journalism. The Guardian are sending out mixed messages, and these are ones that can’t be deleted.”

This wasn’t Kelvin Mackenzie or Piers Morgan or an arch-Murdoch apologist making these comments. It was a left-leaning comedian on a left-leaning show on BBC Radio 4. You can hear the full clip - and the context - here:

Now, it’s clear that that the Guardian has, pretty spectacularly, led the way in its coverage of the phone hacking saga, starting a ball rolling which has taken us to the point we are at now - where the behaviour and conduct of the media is under scrutiny, the PCC is winding up and genuine questions about the legitimacy of public interest defences are being made.

It has undoubtedly changed the media landscape in this country for years, if not decades to come and the paper has, through dogged reporting and investigation, highlighted potentially countless instances of breaches of privacy and information where genuine public interest - as opposed to merely being interesting to the public - is questionable.

But the Operation Motorman investigation and the ICO report remains an important adjunct to the Leveson inquiry, and something that risks being overlooked. The narrative taken in the phone-hacking inquiry, the Commons select committee hearings and in much of the reporting of Leveson has been that News International were the main - if not the only - culprits, whereas Motorman suggests that, even anecdotally, the culture must have been far more widespread.

And this is largely my problem with GNM and its coverage of the issue - this isn’t about trolling Guardian News and Media, or having a go at Alan Rusbridger, or saying ‘you’re as bad as everyone else’. It’s about media campaigning retaining that high ground.

If Rusbridger and GNM are serious about their coverage of the need to clean-up and better improve the behaviour of the press as being for anything other than attacks on a commercial and ideological publishing rival, they also need to be serious and honest about their own failings.

Blaming it on a former editor, or a former regime, or saying ‘we’ve tightened up our procedures since then’ weren’t excuses which gave an out to the News of the World, after all. There remain questions about the depth to which blagging culture permeated the Observer that the editor-in-chief and the management need to answer to ensure that moral high ground remains theirs, and that their open approach to media morality isn’t just hollow talk. If they expose those blaggers who were on their own books, it becomes easier to lay the charge at other publishers for similar blagging - and to fairly criticise those who don't provide answers.

Clearing up the overhanging questions over the Observer’s blagging behaviour, rather than trying to brush them off or hide behind a flag of convenience, would be the strongest way of confirming their intent.

In announcing the award, the Media Society said Alan Rusbridger “consistently defended journalism's role as holding power to account”. Let’s see if that goes to his own power as much as others.

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