The private investigator hired by the Daily Mail AFTER he was convicted of obtaining unlawful data is convinced reporters and editors ‘knew’ his methods were illegal.
By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
Byline Investigations revealed on Friday how PI Steve Whittamore was paid £150,000 by The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday and Evening Standard after he was raided.
Today, he says that it is ‘simply not credible’ that editors weren’t aware of his unlawful methods.
Many of Whittamore’s taskings, covered by documents unearthed by Byline, involved illegal blagging of phone networks.
Among other services, he sold ex-directory landline numbers and ‘mobile phone conversions’ – finding out who a mobile phone is registered to, and where the person lives – so that Daily Mail reporters can doorstep them.
In addition, Whittamore unlawfully supplied lists of ‘Friends and Family’ phone numbers to Daily Mail reporters, so that the paper could snoop on relatives and neighbours of people in the news.
Whittamore is convinced that the reporters who used him – and the executives who signed-off his substantial bills – ‘must have known’ what he was doing was against the law.
‘On some of the more complicated tasks the invoice could reach four figures,” Whittamore told Byline Investigations.
“To suggest that any editor worth their salt did not know of methods used on their behalf, in my opinion, is simply is not credible.
“Following a visit from the ICO in 2003, to many of my press contacts, I became a pariah.
“The Daily Mail, however, continued to request my services for some considerable time after.”
Whittamore said the Mail was very competitive, and that the phone numbers he got for its journalists, gave them an advantage on stories.
He added that when he charged the News Desk £1500 for a ‘job’, that it was self-evident that it was ‘for much more’ than a simple electoral roll search, a legal inquiry costing £75.
But Whittamore is not the only one who thinks the Mail is being disingenuous about new blagging allegations.
How could they miss Blag2409?
The officer who arrested Whittamore in 2003, whilst working for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), has called for Part 2 of the Leveson Inquiry to take place as planned, so that Mail editor Dacre can explain the discrepancies.
Decorated ex-Special Branch cop Alec Owens – who was former PM Harold Wilson’s bodyguard – told Byline investigations: “With hindsight, I am not surprised that the Mail continued to use Whittamore whilst he was under investigation by the ICO and police… It was too lucrative a business for either party to let go.
“Whittamore has obviously continued making a lot of money, whilst the Mail could continue to get the jump on their competitors by carrying on utilising his illegal activities.”
Astonishingly, the email Whittamore used on his invoices made it clear to the Daily Mail that he wasn’t only using legal databases such as CD Roms and electoral rolls.
His company’s business email was firstname.lastname@example.org.
Using deception to con British Telecom or Vodafone can only be legal if the personal data was obtained “in the public interest”.
Leveson Evidence Questioned
The Daily Mail’s top lawyer Liz Hartley told the Leveson Inquiry that her company’s reporters had no idea that Whittamore was using blagging.
She tried to argue that they didn’t think he was using deception because the word ‘blag’ did not appear “much” in the ICO’s summary of Whittamore’s records.
Whittamore has told Byline Investigations that almost all of his phone inquiries required blagging, and Byline reporters have seen documentary evidence to back this up.
‘Blagging,’ or obtaining information by deception, is a criminal offence under Section 55 of the Data Protection Act.
Anyone commissioning the data-mining, who knew or ought to have known how it was obtained, is also liable for the same offence.
More than two years after his conviction Whittamore is paid £6662.26 by Britain’s favourite middle-market newspaper.
The new information casts doubt on evidence given to the Leveson Inquiry by both the Editors of the Daily Mail and Mail On Sunday – and the group’s chief lawyer.
Under oath, Daily Mail Editor Paul Dacre claimed he could not ‘recall’ many of the details about his paper’s use of Whittamore.
He forgot despite the Mail having access to all of its records and knowing he was going be questioned on the matter.
He said he ‘must have been aware’ of Operation Motorman in 2004.
But the invoices and payment slips, exclusively obtained by Byline, show that he didn’t stop his newspaper using his services for at least another two years.
In fact, we now know that a senior Associated News journalist was interviewed under caution by the police in January 2004 over the police investigation into Whittamore and his blagging network.
Critics say it is inconceivable that the Editor-in-Chief would not have been aware of this development.
Dacre was asked at Leveson whether he thought getting ‘Friends and Family’ phone numbers (a list of frequently dialled, and cheaper, numbers selected by a customer and held by BT on their IT system for billing purposes) was a breach of S.55 of the Data Protection Act.
“I would say that that information could all be obtained legally, but it would take time,” Dacre replied.
This is not true.
‘Friends and Family’ numbers cannot be obtained legally unless they are handed over voluntarily to a newspaper by the telephone customer.
In an attempt to blame Whittamore for supplying unlawful data to his journalists, Dacre said: “We established that often Mr Whittamore supplied information that wasn’t necessarily asked for.”
This is not accurate, according to Whittamore.
Whittamore confirmed that the vast majority of his jobs came from direct instructions from Daily Mail journalists, and that his bills were rarely quibbled, which would have been the case if he was offering for sale extra data that wasn’t requested.
Mr. Dacre told Leveson that he reminded his reporters to abide by the Editors’ Code rules on data in 2005 – but did not explain why the Daily Mail repeatedly breached the Code by continuing to use Whittamore.
He also claimed the newspaper wrote to Whittamore after his conviction to ask if the information he was still supplying them with was ‘within the law.’
Mr Dacre said it wasn’t ‘fair ‘ to criticise him for not launching an inquiry into his papers’ extensive use of Whittamore in 2004/05.
Peter Wright’s Leveson Evidence
Meanwhile, the then Mail on Sunday Editor, Peter Wright told Leveson that their paper stopped using Whittamore in September 2004.
But he admitted to Lord Justice Leveson that after that there were ‘two later payments no one can explain.’
Wright also claimed that his managing editor, John Wellington, had “hidden” the payments in hotel and taxi expenses payments, which is why he was not aware of this.
No substantive disciplinary action was ever taken against any reporter, or the managing editor.
Indeed, despite the obvious conflict of interest, Wellington was chosen by the company to go to the Cheshire HQ of the ICO to inspect the confidential records held by the data watchdog before the Leveson Inquiry.
Our investigation found a payment slip on Mail on Sunday stationary to Whittamore for £1139.75 dated 27 April 2006.
This remittance was generated after Whittamore sent in two invoices dated 25/09/05 and 16/10/05 for £869.50 and £270.25 respectively.
Press Regulator Insiders
Peter Wright is Editor Emeritus at Associated Newspapers.
As a Fleet Street elder, he served the industry’s Editors’ Code Committee and of the Press Complaints Commission – the regulatory body that failed to uncover Whittamore’s blagging and then phone hacking in the 2000s.
During his Leveson testimony, Wright also downplayed previous payments to Whittamore in the years before 2003, the subject of a criminal investigation called Operation Motorman.
At Leveson, under oath, Wright agreed that £20,000 “over several years” was the right sum for transactions that the ICO had positively identified as being illegal, for the period from 1999 up to the date of raid in 2003.
Astonishingly, the total figure is more than THREE times that amount – a whopping £62,025.
From what Byline investigations has seen of the work of Whittamore, and according to Whittamore himself, it is likely that the vast majority of that expenditure was for data that was obtained unlawfully, and could only have been obtained unlawfully.
If the Mail on Sunday was so certain of its figure, the paper had the opportunity to publish the correct amount (redacting the private information) since its executives were given access to the ICO’s files relating to the paper’s purchases prior to the hearing.
The Mail on Sunday had records of all their payments, and Wright was at liberty to provide the true figure – or correct the lawyers who were grilling him.
Wright currently serves on the Complaints Committee of the PCC’s replacement IPSO, which oversees complaints about inaccuracy, harassment, and privacy invasion by the press – including the use of subterfuge by journalists
The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is a regulator for the newspaper and magazine industry in the UK, however critics accuse the body of being run by newspaper insiders such as Wright.
On Friday, Matt Tee, Chief Executive of IPSO, washed his hands of the affair.
He replied to a request from Byline Investigations to comment on several questions about Wright’s evidence to Leveson, and his suitability as a member of the IPSO Complaints Committee, with a one-line observation.
Meanwhile, Alec Owens blames the ICO for being weak in the face of powerful newspapers.
“Being a little cynical,” the former investigator told Byline, “I would congratulate the Mail on having the foresight to recognise the fact that the Information Commissioner’s Office is no more use than a toothless tiger.
“The Mail knew it and has proved it, knowing full well the senior management of ICO would never come near them, no matter what they did or was discovered.”