By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
FIFTY serving or former Rupert Murdoch journalists – many very senior – allegedly used a private investigator to unlawfully gather information, the High Court in London has heard.
Many of those said to have used the services of Steve Whittamore, who was convicted of data theft in 2005, have gone on to become some of the most powerful people in the British media landscape.
The list includes Rebekah Brooks, the current chief executive (CEO) of Murdoch’s British publishing arm News UK, and serving Sun on Sunday editor Victoria Newton (pictured in header image, centre and far right respectively).
Also named are former editor of The Sun Dominic Mohan, and the paper’s former showbiz reporter James Scott, who today run some of the most influential public relations businesses in the country.
The names were revealed in a witness statement deployed in a court hearing on behalf of people suing Murdoch’s News Group Newspapers (NGN) for phone hacking and unlawful news-gathering.
Others listed have gone on to senior jobs in broadcast media and corporate public affairs. A trial of the facts in the current round of claims is scheduled at the High Court for October.
The journalists include some from other Fleet Street papers, such as the Daily Express and The Mail on Sunday, who either had worked, or went on to work, at The Sun or News of the World.
NGN denies phone hacking, and does not admit using private investigators to illegally ‘blag’ phone billing data and medical records at The Sun, and on some parts of the News of the World.
According to court documents, the names were contained in hand-written notebooks used by Whittamore to record the jobs journalists allegedly commissioned from him.
In April 2005, Whittamore appeared at Blackfriars Crown Court and pleaded guilty to procuring confidential police data from the police national computer to sell to various newspapers. The News of the World was named in court as one of the buyers of this information.
His books were seized by investigators from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in raids on Whittamore’s business JJ Services in Hampshire in 2003 in an operation called ‘Motorman’.
He recorded his taskings in colour-coded pads, with each newspaper group having a different colour. Red, for example, was used for Mirror Group Newspapes (MGN) titles.
Whittamore’s ‘Blue Book’ contained jobs allegedly carried out between 2001 and 2003 for The News of the World and The Sun. Its existence and content have been known about for many years – and were discussed by the Leveson Inquiry in 2011/12.
However, in the recent court case it was revealed – for the first time – that the ICO was in possession of four more books recording taskings, between 1995 and 2001 which precede those covered by the Blue Book, by journalists at several newspaper groups.
The lawyers for the claimants allege that some journalists used Whittamore on other national newspapers before moving to the News of The World, where they carried on requesting data.
The legal document states: “These books also contain occasional names of journalists from other newspapers, but who later went on to work for NGN, such as Dennis Rice, and presumably – as pleaded by the Claimants – carried on the same practice of unlawful information gathering they had practised at their previous titles.”
Byline has contacted the journalists named in the court documents for comment.
Dennis Rice said: “I worked (as) a reporter for the News of the World for 11 months in 1998-99 – which is 20 years ago… I did not at any stage during my employment there use the services of a pretext blagger and to state so would be a gross falsehood and incredibly damaging to my reputation.”
Since publication Mr Rice has written to us to deny using Whittamore before or after his time at the News of the World, except for one occasion in 2000, which – he says – was to lawfully check the electoral register.
Mr Rice also asserts that the evidence deployed in court is inaccurate in relation to him.
The ICO disclosure included further notebooks – Yellow and Green – previously known to include taskings mainly from Associated Newspapers, owner of the Mail on Sunday and Daily Mail (and former owner of the London Evening Standard), and the Express Group.
The ICO disclosure also revealed a previously unrecorded Whittamore notebook – Orange – dating from approximately 1997 to 1999, and mainly covering requests from reporters for Mirror Group, Express Group, and Associated Newspapers.
The legal document states: “The same pattern of unlawful activity, well known from the original Blue Book and admitted to in Mr Whittamore’s witness statement, is shown in this book.”
It added: “Based on a preliminary analysis, and by way of example, the following journalists feature in the Orange, Red, Yellow and Green books, or are named on invoices submitted by JJ Services, and went on to work for The Sun and News of the World, often in senior roles.”
The names emerged as claimants’ lawyers argued NGN was failing in its duty to disclose information on all the private investigators it employed and the tasks they were commissioned to carry out.
As a result, the claimants were granted a court order requiring NGN to disclose information relating to the use of PIs and blaggers before July 1998, as well as afterwards.
NGN unsuccessfully argued it would cost too much to disclose the new documents – having already handed 25,000 relating to the use of PIs and alleged blaggers.
Lawyer Roger Best, for NGN, had said the existence of the document store was already in the public domain and that the claimants could and should have asked for more disclosure from it earlier.
The case continues…
* This article was updated 09/07/18