In our latest investigation into the Daily Mail, Associated News responds to Byline’s exclusive revelations that editors paid a PI £150,000 while he was under investigation. Controversial newspaper tries to rubbish our story – but the rebuttal is littered with inaccurate statements.
By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
THE DAILY MAIL has responded to a story about unlawful data deception – by trying to blag its way out of the scandal.
Last week Byline revealed that the Mail and sister papers spent vast sums on inquiry agent Steve Whittamore.
The fees were paid to the professional “blagger”, AFTER he was raided in March 2003, and following his conviction for data theft in April 2005.
But the best-selling paper tried to undermine our investigation with a series of spurious claims.
In a statement from the Managing Editor’s office on Friday, the Daily Mail tried to shrug off our story by claiming it was ‘old.’
The email stated: ‘There is nothing new in any of these so-called revelations, which relate to events from well over a decade ago and were dealt with at great length by the Leveson Inquiry.’
The remittances, stamped with the Daily Mail letterhead, have never been made public, and neither have any accounting documents relating to the shadowy trade in private billing data.
Our report also revealed for the first time the specific sum paid to Whittamore after he was raided in 2003 – £150,000 – an amount that was not in the public domain.
None of the Daily Mail executives mentioned this figure, in publicly available documents, in what the Mail describe as their ‘extensive and detailed written and verbal evidence on Whittamore to the Leveson Inquiry five years ago.’
Most of their answers at the Leveson Inquiry concentrated on the Information Commissioner’s investigation called Operation Motorman, which only looked into the Mail’s and other newspapers’ use of Whittamore BEFORE the ICO raid.
The Mail also tried to shift focus onto the BBC – even though the broadcaster spent a tiny fraction of what Associated News paid the PI – and there is no evidence that the BBC ever broke the law.
The statement said: ‘It is a matter of public record that the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday were among 32 news organisations, including the BBC and the Observer, which used Steve Whittamore’s services.’
But unlike the Mail, there is no evidence that the BBC used Whittamore after his arrest or conviction.
The Mail has never revealed the reasons why reporters and editors hired Whittamore and for what stories.
Yet the BBC gave a full account of why a programme had used Whittamore’s tracing skills.
The BBC said he was hired to track down a convicted paedophile, who BBC journalists believed was planning to travel to Britain.
The broadcaster said Whittamore’s work was justified in the public interest, and also informed TV watchdog Ofcom.
The Data Protection Act offers an exemption for blagging where there is a public interest justification, such as the use of tracing agents to find those hiding from commitments like child support payments.
The BBC said in 2011: ‘The BBC has provided details of this matter to Ofcom who confirmed that they are satisfied with our explanation that this was warranted in the public interest and they are not taking any further action.’ This demonstrates that – unlike the newspapers – the BBC is accountable for its actions to a real regulator.
The BBC spent £150 tasking Whittamore over a three year period on one job – the Daily Mail paid the equivalent of that amount to Whittamore every day over the same period for more than 1,700 taskings.
Despite being given access to records of all of the taskings its journalists gave Whittamore, and the articles which resulted, the Mail has never provided an example of a request for blagged phone data or car registration reversals which was in the public interest.
A glance at the subjects of the intrusion commissioned by the Mail shows most, if not all, were not in the public interest and so on the face of it were potential criminal offences.
As for the Observer, managers asked the paper’s Ombudsman, John Willis, to conduct a thorough investigation into Whittamore’s work for them.
He examined every single case and made his report publicly available back in November 2012 after the allegations about Operation Motorman had received some press attention.
Byline does not know if the Mail examined every case, but it certainly did not publish any report.
Willis concluded that the Sunday broadsheet spent approximately £13,000 on Whittamore’s services and never asked for criminal records, ‘Friends and Family’ numbers or car registration details.
In contrast, the Mail group paid Whittamore more than £300,000 over six years and engaged him regularly to blag data, which could only have been obtained unlawfully.
Part two of our investigation on Sunday revealed how Whittamore said the Mail ‘must have known’ he was blagging.
He explained that it was ‘simply not credible’ that editors weren’t aware of his unlawful methods.
MGN Ltd, publishers of The Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and The People have since admitted that work Whittamore did for their newspapers was illegal.
To date, neither the Daily Mail nor the Mail on Sunday have revealed any details of any internal investigation into how their reporters used Whittamore.
The Daily Mail has also failed to explain why the bosses repeatedly ignored well-publicised warnings from the ICO to stop using his services.
The statement said: ‘As is well known, the Mail on Sunday stopped use of Mr Whittamore in September 2004, six months before his conviction and, in common with the Daily Mail, banned all use of inquiry agents in April 2007.’
But as Byline revealed on Friday, the Mail on Sunday DID NOT stop using Whittamore in September 2004.
They used him again in late 2005, for which he was paid in 2006, and Peter Wright was unable to explain exactly why in his evidence to Leveson.