- PIA Sarma undermined privacy report evidence by the Information Commissioner’s Office, in an official statement
- IT could NOT be concluded that journalists knew private investigator information was illegal, she claimed
- BUT since then, several of Ms Sarma’s key claims, have proved wrong
- MS Sarma’s career has rocketed under Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks
- BUT Ms Brooks’ own alibis about PI use have also proved weak and contradictory
By Graham Johnson
Editor, Byline Investigates
A WITNESS statement given by Rupert Murdoch’s top lawyer to the Leveson Inquiry was largely wrong, Byline Investigates can reveal.
Pia Sarma played-down and dismissed allegations that journalists acted illegally, when tasking a convicted private investigator.
Ms Sarma stated, that Sun and News of the World reporters, by-and-large, did not knowingly break the law, when they hired Steve Whittamore, or were justified if they did.
Mr Whittamore had already, by that time, been prosecuted for Data Protection offences, carried-out for the very same newspapers, that Ms Sarma represented.
The private detective specialised in providing illegally-obtained private telephone data, vehicle registrations, and criminal records to journalists, earning substantial amounts of money by doing so.
Thousands of victims were targeted, on an industrial scale for more than a decade – and the News of the World was one of his first, and longest-standing, big-name clients.
Not surprisingly, many of the claims made by Ms Sarma to the Leveson Inquiry, have turned-out not to be true, our investigation can reveal.
Knowingly giving wrong or distorted evidence to a public inquiry is a criminal offence, punishable by up to 51 weeks in jail.
However, in her defence, Ms Sarma was not at News International at the time of Mr Whittamore’s actual offences – she only joined later, by which time they had come to light.
Legal experts have told Byline Investigates that Ms. Sarma may have been heavily reliant upon her client (News International) providing her with information for the inquiry, which now turns out to have been false.
It is not known whether, and to what extent, Ms Sarma questioned the information – or how rigorously it was checked, before she signed her witness statement.
For example, in her evidence Ms Sarma asserted that Mr Whittamore could have obtained ex-directory phone numbers from legal databases and phone directories, and implied that he had.
The implication was that there were legal sources available to him, which were not accessible to Murdoch’s company, even though that was a global corporation and Mr Whittamore’s office was a backroom in his suburban home.
Or instead, that they would rather pay vast sums to an intermediary, such as Mr Whittamore, to gather the information for them, rather than do it themselves.
But the retired private investigator told Byline Investigates that none of these explanations are plausible or right.
He got the vast majority illegally, he says, by paying a “blagger”, to criminally-obtain private phone data on a daily basis.
Mr Whittamore said he specifically sub-contracted the professional blagger, to unlawfully obtain subscriber information by deception from British Telecom, by pretending to be a phone engineer.
Mr Whittamore said he hardly ever used CD-ROM–style databases, or phone books, to get ex-directory numbers, two alternatives posed by Ms Sarma, as a way of getting numbers legally.
These discs generally did not contain the information required, he said.
Several of Ms Sarma’s claims also run contradictory to new evidence underpinning fresh allegations of mass criminality, that have come to light in the civil courts since the Leveson Inquiry.
The decade-long phone hacking litigation, in the High Court, has cost Murdoch’s empire hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation and legal costs.
The court has repeatedly heard how Mr Whittamore – who is a witness for the Claimants – revealed how he broke the law, but that it was covered-up his News of The World handlers.
One former journalist, called Matthew Acton, even changed his evidence, when it was found out that he did not “tell the truth” about tasking Mr Whittamore.
In a statement, Mr Whittamore told the court: “I was often asked for ex−directory numbers of famous people who did not publicly list their numbers for a reason… although Mr Acton says he has never requested or seen phone records, the documents I have seen show otherwise.’”
Byline Investigates has re-examined Ms Sarma’s Leveson evidence, as part of a new series about her boss Rebekah Brooks.
Ms Brooks has given seven different alibis to official bodies over 17 years, about her own knowledge and use of private investigators.
In the previous instalment, we revealed how Ms Brooks also gave wrong evidence to the Leveson Inquiry.
Ms Brooks said under oath that she only ever used private investigators to track down paedophiles.
However, she did not mention that she used Steve Whittamore at least four times to find out if her then fiancé Ross Kemp was having an affair.
But it turns out, that Ms Brooks was not the only senior Murdoch employee, to present misleading information to the inquiry.
Ms Sarma, who began working as Senior Legal Adviser to The Times in 2009 shortly before Brooks was appointed Chief Executive, is now Editorial Legal Director and Deputy General Counsel, Times Newspapers.
In 2012, at the inquiry into press ethics, she was giving evidence for the whole of News International including News Group Newspapers Ltd (which runs The Sun, and the News of the World, before it closed).
This was because their previous top lawyer, Tom Crone, had left the company and was under police investigation.
In her evidence, Ms Sarma tried to prove as false the Information Commissioner’s accusations of wrongdoin.
In short, Ms Sarma’s second witness statement amounted to a four-pronged attack on an ICO report called “What Price Privacy?” and the evidence given by its author, Richard Thomas.
First, Ms Sarma tried to play down the number of obviously illegal taskings, such as criminal records and driver registration data, as being a very small percentage of the whole.
Second, she said that many of Mr Whittamore’s taskings – such as ex-directory (X-D) landline numbers – which the ICO said were ‘illicit’, could have been obtained legally.
Third, she claimed, that even if some were not obtained lawfully, NI journalists did not know this.
Fourth, if the data was obtained illegally, and NGN journalists knew this, it could be justified with a journalistic ‘public interest’ defence, she claimed.
However, as we will reveal, in our next instalment of May v Brooks, her claims are inconsistent with what new witnesses say, and fresh evidence revealed in the High Court.
In it, we will examine whether Ms Sarma should consider correcting her evidence to the Inquiry.
More follows, in Part 7 of May vs Brooks.