However, the version in this series was inherently partisan and deceptive: effectively, a party political broadcast for the Hacked Off pressure group. The key people – Hugh Grant, Tom Watson, Max Mosley, Alan Rusbridger and, above all, The Guardian’s investigative reporter Nick Davies – were given free rein to tell their stories and voice their opinions, wholly unchallenged.
(“Tell me, Mr Watson, what made you so certain that Carl Beech was entirely credible and that Leon Brittan ‘was as close to evil as a human being can get’?” “Mr Mosley, why did you print and distribute racist literature in the 1960s?” “Mr Watson, is it true that Max Mosley provided you with more than half a million pounds?”)
The questions that most begged to be asked were of Nick Davies. In the programme, he said he was “amazed” to find widespread evidence of phone hacking and blagging after the fifteen months of investigation he said he did before he published his first article about hacking in 2009. Why was he so surprised? And why did he concentrate on the Murdoch titles?
After all, three years earlier, in 2006, the Information Commissioner had published a report entitled ‘What Price Privacy?’ (a follow-up later in the year was called ‘What Price Privacy Now?’) exposing the activities of private investigators, primarily working for newspapers.
As a result of a 2003 investigation, the entire filing system of private investigator Steve Whittamore had fallen into the hands of the Information Commissioner. The extensive records of JJ Information Limited, the company run by Whittamore and his wife Georgina, documented 13,353 lines of inquiry in a period of three years. The vast majority of them were either definitely or probably illegal under section 55 of the Data Protection Act of 1998, which had come into force in March 2000.
These investigations ranged from finding out ex-directory phone numbers, checking confidential health reports, blagging bank statements, using insiders at the DVLA, the Inland Revenue, HMRC and the Police National Computer to gain access to private records, undertaking surveillance and scouring filched telephone bills to locate ‘friends and family’.
Although some clients looked respectable – local authorities trying to track down defaulting tenants, lawyers pursuing evaders of court orders or banks trying to establish the financial status of potential borrowers – overwhelmingly the customer base came from newspapers and magazines. There were even price lists: £200 for a DVLA check, £500 for a PNC check, £750 for a mobile phone account bill (all with VAT on top).
Even so, JJ Information was quite small, so there was every reason to assume that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of similar set-ups could be found up and down the country.
The scale of this “pervasive and widespread industry” alarmed the Information Commissioner, as did the limited number of prosecutions under section 55, compounded by the modest penalties that could be imposed on those convicted under the law as it stood. Even the Whittamores, after offering guilty pleas, were given conditional discharges. The commissioner called for the law to be changed so as to provide for jail terms of up to two years for serious offences.
The Information Commissioner’s report calculated that the Whittamores numbered 305 different journalists amongst their clients. Nonetheless – or maybe for that reason – most newspapers, including The Guardian, rejected the call for custodial sentences. So did the BBC, arguing that such penalties might inhibit public interest journalism, even though the Information Commissioner’s Office patiently explained to the BBC that the law already included a public interest waiver. Unsurprisingly, ministers were reluctant to push the idea.
So the commissioner’s follow-up report went a step further, listing the newspapers which had paid the Whittamores to carry out their (mostly illegal) requests.
One hundred and forty-two of the Whittamores’ 305 journalist clients worked for the Mirror Group and 94 worked for Associated Newspapers (then publisher of the Daily Mail): between them they paid for nearly 3,000 jobs. Only twenty-nine worked for Murdoch papers, and had paid for 258 tasks. The Observer (Sunday sister paper of The Guardian) commissioned 103 inquiries.
Even this level of revelation left Fleet Street mostly indifferent. If Nick Davies read either report at the time, he wrote nothing about them. One of his colleagues on The Guardian, David Leigh, wrote that if he had ever used such methods and intermediaries, it was only to expose bribery and corruption. The irony seemed not to strike him that that was indeed what the ICO had exposed, in wholesale fashion: much of the Whittamores’ information came from insiders, like the officer at Tooting police station, Paul Marshall, with access to the Police National Computer.
It was only two years later that Davies – along with other journalists – found a way of filling in the detail of the ‘What Price Privacy Now?’ report: but he was interested only in the Murdoch papers, and effectively ignored all other miscreant publications, even those which had used the Whittamores far more extensively. The same was true of The New York Times, when The Guardian chose to share its investigative results with a rival that was also an ally: the NYT was as fixated on Murdoch then as it would later be on Brexit and Trump.
Listening in on the lives of others
By that time, a new opportunity to glean private information illicitly had emerged. Listening in to voicemail messages (usually but inaccurately described as ‘phone-hacking’, which implies listening in to phone calls) became an attractive option, as more and more people – especially prominent ones – adopted mobile phones but failed to change the factory settings for access to their messages.