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Guest blog on the need for the public to see the full story re Motorman

Posted on 12 March 2012 | 8:03am

An interesting piece from Brian Cathcart, a founder of the Hacked Off campaign, who teaches journalism at Kingston University London, on the campaign’s website.

There is an open secret at the Leveson inquiry. The judge knows it; the lawyers all know it; the witnesses from the press – including the editors – all know it. In fact only one significant party is kept in the dark: the public in whose name the inquiry acts.

And it’s not a small secret but a huge one, an entire database relating to illegal activity carried out at the behest of journalists working for national newspapers over a number of years. Occasionally it is mentioned in public evidence at the inquiry, almost always in vague and general terms. Yet there is nothing vague about it; it brims with detail.

It names journalists who commissioned thousands of actions which they must or should have known were, on the face of it, illegal. It records dates and payments for these transactions. 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.

It is time the Motorman files were made public. They should be redacted to protect the privacy of the victims but otherwise they should be published in their entirety and in a way that clearly shows which journalists commissioned what activities for which newspapers at what prices. Then let journalists and newspapers justify their actions if they can.

What are the Motorman files?

Motorman was an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office in 2003 into the activities of Steve Whittamore, a private investigator who for years ran a lucrative business providing press clients with addresses, phone numbers, car registrations and other information. Some of this information was legally available and some not: there is no legal way of acquiring records from the Police National Computer, the DVLA or BT’s ‘friends and family‘ database.

Though Whittamore and three associates were eventually convicted, no journalist or newspaper was prosecuted. That decision has been challenged and defended many times and the argument is now a barren one. There is no public interest today in prosecuting journalists for commissioning Whittamore and it will not happen; there is, however, a compelling public interest in the fullest possible disclosure of the files.

Yet when Hacked Off asked the Leveson Inquiry and the Information Commissioner’s Office to redact and publish them, they both said no.

In the past, the Information Commissioner has revealed that 305 journalists working for 32 publications generated 17,000 purchase orders with Whittamore in the years up to 2003. Many were innocent but several thousand involved prima facie breaches of the law.

Breaking the Data Protection Act can be justified if it is done in the public interest, to uncover wrongdoing, say, or to prevent crime. Some newspapers say their reporters acted for reasons of that kind but the Information Commissioner said most stories were so trivial they could never qualify as in the public interest. Either way, the newspapers’ sweeping claims that they did nothing illegal have never been tested.

Why now?

We need disclosure now, during the Leveson inquiry, because otherwise the files will be buried for ever. We need it because almost every national newspaper group is implicated and it is time they explained themselves, revealing their public interest justifications in detail where they have any. And we need it because it is inevitable that some of those 305 journalists are today in senior positions at national newspapers.

Above all we need disclosure because the Motorman files go to the heart of the Leveson mission, which is to examine the culture, practice and ethics of the press, and because it is wrong that information relating to wrongdoing is kept from the public when it has been shared between the lawyers and the implicated news organisations – as it definitely has been.

What are the arguments against publication? First, let us dispense with the weakest: that this database is so vast that redacting it for publication is too much work. Not so. The Information Commissioner’s Office itself has estimated that the job would take between 15 and 30 staff days (see par 483).

Next is the argument that, because newspapers say they have stopped using Whittamore, Motorman is ancient history and thus irrelevant to the inquiry. There is an inconsistency here: nobody publicly suggests that journalists are still hacking mobile phone voicemails and yet that is clearly relevant.

In fact, the cases of Steve Whittamore and the hacker Glenn Mulcaire are remarkably similar. Mulcaire was arrested in 2006 and it is clear he began hacking in 2002 or earlier – when Whittamore’s business was at its peak. Both investigators worked closely with newsdesks to penetrate the privacy of large numbers of people by illegal means. Yet Mulcaire’s journalist clients are subject to rigorous criminal investigation while the identity of Whittamore’s journalist clients is being officially protected.

It might be argued that to publish the full list of journalists’ names would unfairly lump the innocent in with the guilty. Reporters and editors who never did more than pay Whittamore to consult an open, public database will appear alongside those who asked him for people’s criminal records.

There may be embarrassment for some journalists, but remember there is no danger of prosecution here. What matters most, as with phone hacking, is that the scale and character of the scandal is fully understood and that today’s editors and news executives, some of whom have insisted that they and their papers never broke the law, should be subject to informed public scrutiny. This is very similar to the justification for publishing all of the data on MPs’ expenses, even though only a minority of MPs had broken the law.

Finally, while it is vital that victims’ identities should be redacted from the files (they should be identified only in classes, such as ‘a television presenter’, ‘a victim of crime’, ‘a police officer’ etc) it is equally vital that victims should be informed of what happened. This process – which is a matter of right – is under way in the hacking scandal; it is even more overdue in the Motorman affair and should begin as soon as possible.


If you agree that the Motorman file should be redacted and published as a matter of priority, please write to the Leveson inquiry saying so. The address is: Please copy your email to the Information Commissioner’s Office:


Further reading about the Motorman/Whittamore file:

Two reports by the Information Commissioner’s Office here and here.

An investigation by the Independent

A 2009 report by the Guardian’s Nick Davies

By the way, the following purports to include a redacted version of the spreadsheets. As you will see, it has been redacted to the point of meaninglessness.

Brian Cathcart, a founder of Hacked Off, teaches journalism at Kingston University London. He tweets at @BrianCathcart

  • Chris lancashire

    Leveson – BIG yawn.

  • Olli Issakainen

    95% of tabloid journalists give a bad name to all of them.
    And then there is the small matter of Paul Dacre and the Daily Mail to deal with when it comes to private investigators.
    But I do not support the idea that Rupert Murdoch should not be allowed to own so maný titles.
    The reason for this is that the Times and the Sunday Times are loss-making. The Sun is, on the other hand, profitable and pays the bills of the quality titles.
    It is difficult to imagine anyone willing to support the Times and the Sunday Times without financial muscle of other titles.
    Clever editors have for a long time outsourced all the dirty tricks, so it is difficult to catch them.
    James Murdoch has now resigned as News International (NI)chairman. Is he fit to continue at BSkyB?
    News Corp derives more than 70% of its operating income from its TV business which includes the Fox network.
    Publishing accounts for less than fifth of annual operating income and is down on profitability.
    News Corp has a 39% stake in BSkyB.
    Payments to public officials at News International were authorised at a senior level.
    National security was in danger as the office of John Prescott was hacked.
    John Yates and Andy Hayman apper to have buried the evidence of widespread wrongdoing that lay in Glenn Mulcaire´s notebooks.
    The buck at News Corp stops at its board. It has the ultimate responsibility.
    Needless to say that the board of directors has failed.
    Rupert Murdoch is the chairman and CEO of News Corp. Nothing important happens without his approval.
    He is a micro-manager, and has been the real editor of the Sun for decades.
    Mr Murdoch created the culture at NI which meant that stories were pursued at any cost.
    Rupert Murdoch was born Catholic. In 1998 Pope John Paul II made Mr Murdoch a Knight Commander of St. Gregory.
    Vatican and Jesuit Order have significant influence at News Corp.
    Rupert Murdoch is a member of Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)and Bilderberg Group. He is a close friend of Jacob Rothschild.
    Sir Roderick Eddington of the Rothschild-controlled JP Morgan Chase sits on the board of News Corp. The Rothschilds finance News Corp.
    Andrew Knight is also on the board. He works for J Rothschild Capital Management. According to Business Week Mr Knight is linked to Chatham House, Bilderberg Group and Ditchley Foundation.
    Another board member, Viet Dinh, is a Harvard graduated professor at Georgetown University. This university is the largest Jesuit educational institution in Washington.
    Mr Dinh is the chief architect of the US PATRIOT Act. He is a Roman Catholic, and a member of CFR.
    Stanley Shuman, a board member of News Corp, works for the secretive investment bank Allen & Company. Former CIA director George Tenet, who graduated from Georgetown University in 1976, is a director of Allen & Company.
    Herb Allen is a member of the board of Coca-Cola, which the Rothschilds control through Vanguard, State Street, Fidelity and BlackRock.
    James Murdoch and Lachan Murdoch also belong to the board of News Corp.

    • Michele

       ” ……………John Yates and Andy Hayman apper to have buried the evidence of widespread wrongdoing that lay in Glenn Mulcaire´s notebooks…………”

      Is such conjecture justified?
      Is it based on the ‘evidence’ from NI people or from proven sources?
      Anti-defamation laws control the Finnish press, you appear to enjoy their absence here.

  • Michele

    Is there another method by which to discover all that’s been going on with snoops being paid to invade people’s privacy?

    Do you think off-loading it to a contractee makes it legitimate?

  • Ehtch

    When I saw the Motorman headline, I thought you had watched Top Gear last night Alastair, with that long streak of piss appearing on it with his hamster, Jezza. Glad not, but I have plenty of time for Captain Slow – he bangs the joanna well, don’t you know.

    Anyway, what I think, jurnos live in their own bubble, unlike the rest of us, and to me, there is something pathetic about them all. Scribes? I think not.

  • Anonymous

    I keep sitting up in my seat when I hear them mention “Motorman” on the news, thinking they are talking about Operation Motorman carried out in Northern Ireland near the beginning of the troubles. When I then realise they are talking about this it then seems way less interesting than it otherwise would, like if Grant Schapps called his housing review Operatin Desert Storm or something.

    While we are on that, apparently Grant Schapps is a future leadership contender. Well I hope he learns some economics before then. This governments latest idiotic scheme, the same govt that tell off labour for borrowing too much, are now trying to get people to borrow more and trying to prop up house prices, when the last crash was caused by overpricing houses, and we’ve had to reduce the value of our savings and wages by 25-30% to cope. Now they are going to blow up the next bubble. Morons. I now think this government is worse than Gordon Browns, the worst in my lifetime.

  • Ehtch

    James May, banging the keys,

  • Chris lancashire

    Michele – just stop and think (for a change) why we are here. This inquiry was set up because Cameron was embarrassed about his close links to the Press – ignore for a moment the even closer links of previous PMs.
    I couldn’t hazard a guess what it has already cost but it is undoubtedly £millions of taxpayer’s money and I do know it is currently consuming the resources of over 170 Metropolitan Police officers who might be better employed elsewhere – anti-terrorism in advance of the Olympics for example.

    And what is the likely end result? Politicians passing laws to control the best free press in the world – not an outcome any of us should want.

    If we are worried by press intrusion and illegal activities there already exists sufficient law on libel, defamation, illegal phone tapping etc. it just needs to be enforced which most Home Secretaries have failed to do (back to the politicians!)

  • Ehtch

    Goodness! The Guardian is getting a bit racey. Fall of the Roman Empire and all those reasons for it, I think Raquel thinks. That’s modern communication technology for you – used for Freud’s viewed basic instinct.

  • Michele

    It’s possible that as with certain evidence that couldn’t be given to Lord Hutton’s investigations there are some security / confidentiality  reasons why this database would be hard or wrong to publish and yes, a redacted version could lead to guesses about those it shouldn’t – if only because people can only guess about those whose existence they know of in the first place.

    I’m also sure it would disclose that some Police Officers and more doctors were hacked (as opposed to their having sold info) but I doubt that’s something most people would prefer to know – not realising what their awful pessimism and mistrust can lead to in societies where everyone is deemed buy-able (whether there’s reason or not).

    There’s much comment here about the ‘pointlessness’ (or boringness?) of Inquiries, I’m sad enough to find them more interesting than most TV 🙁 but do believe parts of them should be closed sessions.

    Too many of us pretend outrage about NI/Murdochs etc yet seized any glimmer of possibility of more scandal – viz the joy in the past couple of weeks about the selectively edited reports of Wade’s fostering of a retired horse (and yes I do know she’s been arrested today, I doubt it’s got anything to do with her or hubby letting Dave ride a lovely beast that was not supposed to be ridden, merely rested and homed). 

    I’ve never bought or read a Sun or Wail or NoW (I read the latter at my Tory grandparents long long ago, along with The People) and am boring enough to have never been tempted by salacious Saturday ads which I daresay became drivers for the Sunday rags to live up to.  We got what some of us deserved but imposed on the rest; I don’t think there’s enough embarrassment about that.

  • Ehtch

    BIG OOPS, edit, MacColl it is, irish across strait transported.

  • Ehtch

    Well! Need we hear more? Cameron keeps the company of crims, it is coming out.

    Horse? What horse, this is better. Met/Tories/Murdoch empire – a load of crims, allegedly, in some mafia when a Labour government was going on.

    Posted on New Statesman last year this story will go on and on, and it is still galloping. You can’t stop justice when it get’s moving. I am enjoying it – oh how the mighty will fall, mighty in their own minds, that is.

    Great stuff.

  • Ehtch

    OZ, more Parralox, more, some say, bizarre music, mind expanding to some, hope for healthy future journos, mind gymnastics, sweat that brain,

  • Michele

     So you’re saying all the sleazy criminals’ past deeds should be ignored?

    There are doubtless many people that still have no clue they have been hacked but my interest is the hope of hearing that the hacks have lied even more than most here and elsewhere want to believe, especially about the police.

    It makes me sick that so many are subjective about what they’ll not swallow. 
    Outrage by the ton about the hacks and yet swallowing what the very same have said in their own defence. 
    It beggars belief that in such an atmosphere of easy cash a.k.a. ‘expenses’ everyone is glibly accepting the recipients’ tales. 

    I could be wrong but I have no reason at all to believe the proven liars are telling the truth about their sources. 
    I hope very much that even more than we already know of has actually come from hacking phones and who knows (for the nth time) maybe even some polices’.

  • Ehtch

    Keira and Sienna, on their experiences of pap hunting after their bums, with a bit of AHEM! Dylan Thomas – drop your drawers, you know, my cock is yours,

  • Chris lancashire

    You don’t read do you? See my last paragraph – there are plenty of existing laws – enforcement not lawmaking is the issue.

  • Michele

    There are known knowns now and there were unknown knowns since way back.

    As you’re the genius here, please take a guess about the earliest incidence of hacking that will come to be exposed if Motorman is ever published or better still, prove total godness or true familiarity and tell us if other similar records exist.

    I’ve already expressed my gratitude about what Scotland Yard was prioritising around and from July’05. 
    I still feel that way, not being the one pretending one can know which leads or hunches really are worth following. 
    I doubt Nick Davies has the same pressures on his time or same restrictions in his role, same types of line management or that he and his colleagues will ever have their choices exposed for criticism by all.  Like most senior private employees he has something called autonomy.

    There but for etc. It behoves us all to do more than just criticise, it’s demoralising for groups that are smeared and generalised about, especially so simplistically by knowalls in the ether.

  • Michele

    …………….. “There is no public interest today in prosecuting journalists for commissioning Whittamore”……………

    I don’t think this is true.  I honestly think there has been (cringe) a sea-change about all this.
    While protestations from celebs that they’d not told the hacks what had been filched from their message services was meaningless to most of us (we’d not read the stuff anyway) it has all taken on a far more serious aspect now we know about the victims of crime c/o Nick Davies.

    The whole starburst is getting out of control and compo is taking too big a role now. 
    I just read that Jo Yeates’s landlord is claiming a second lot on the grounds that Police told the media he’d been taken in for questioning.  Helllooooo? 
    He’d claimed to have seen Jo leaving the house with a man but not done so till her body had been found, over a week after she’d disappeared.
    Don’t the public need to know what the Police are up to with such behaviour?
    We now know it was never even true … if I was him I’d be glad I wasn’t being prosecuted for wasting their time.

  • Richard

    “95% of tabloid journalists give a bad name to all of them.” Olli you are brim full of ****.

    Furthermore is there a conspiracy theory that you are not signed up for, a bigotry you do not possess. Anti: Catholic, Jewish……you hate ’em all. Is this called being even handed in Finland?

  • Michele

    Re OP; I really like your blog of last November about the Wail and Hugh Grant.  I think he’s been a great protester and the country could be so much more pleasant without the likes of Amanda Platell. 

    Also rooted around a few others and found this one:
    Isn’t it just possible, along with the insinuations re the possibilities that a hack got info from one of the guards (or other responsible person in the know) and must have had that person’s number in order to contact them, they could raid their contacts list as easily as their message service?

    I’m getting very tired of cynical guesswork, no matter from whom.  Some of the people knocking the hacks are at times being just as disingenuous and damaging.

  • Dave Simons

     I wonder why these existing laws aren’t enforced? Could it be because the country is run by old boy networks that like to do business behind closed doors and ‘wink, wink, nudge, nudge, if one of us is involved then let’s keep quiet about it?

  • Michele

     Not on this topic, rather on another of your preoccupations.
    We’ve heard this week of the GS employee/s that left the company due to discomfort with the pervading atmosphere of treating clients as milkcows and regarding them as ‘numpties’ (which I suppose means they bought what was being sold the hardest).

    Could this actually be why there are ex-GS people distributed so widely in the whole banking system?
    ie: they were not spreading like mould, rather they were trying to escape it?

    Or am I over-optimistic?

  • Michele

    I know this isn’t strictly on topic but it belongs somewhere.
    We saw so much bad news about the riots and a little about all the cheery souls doing clearing up afterwards.
    Re this clip I haven’t seen the news anywhere else nor heard it on radio or TV.
    It’s especially interesting that he thought to urge people not to pass on hype unthinkingly, stuff they did not know first hand to be true.

    I wish there was less reward for ‘scoops’ in our news and that there was a prize for every journalist that doesn’t pass on simple rumour or gossip.