Operation Motorman: Whistleblower Alec Owens seeks written police apology over unlawful raid

  • @iburrell

The Operation Motorman whistleblower who exposed the vast scale on which the media used private detectives to obtain private information wants a written apology from Cheshire Police after it admitted carrying out an unlawful raid on his home.

Alec Owens, himself a former police detective inspector and special branch officer, is considering legal action against the Cheshire force after officers raided his home at 7.25am and seized documents and electronic files.

The raid was carried out in spite of Owens having been called as a witness to Lord Leveson's inquiry into media standards, at which the Operation Motorman investigation was a central theme. He exposed how files listed 17,000 transactions between named media organisations and the disgraced private investigator Steve Whittamore. Many of the jobs, including searches for criminal records, telephone records and vehicle registrations, were unlawful but no journalist was charged.

As an official at the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), Owens had been the lead investigator on Operation Motorman but spoke out to The Independent over his concerns that the investigation was flawed and that the authorities had been too "frightened" to question journalists.

Two months later, after he had been asked to give evidence to Leveson and the day before the former Information Commissioner Richard Thomas was due to appear at the inquiry, Cheshire Police raided Owens's home in Widnes.

"When the officers arrived I told them that the raid was unlawful but they said they had the power to seize my computer. They were making it clear to me that if I wanted to create problems they were going to create problems for me," said Owens. "Although the warrant was authorised by a magistrate it should have been authorised by a judge because of the type of material they were looking for. And any judge would never have signed the warrant - I know that because I used to get search warrants for the ICO."

Cheshire Police has confirmed to Owens, in a letter sent on behalf of Deputy Chief Constable Helen King, the raid - related to the Data Protection Act 1998 - was unlawful. "Given the totality of the circumstances and the fact you are a professional person with no previous convictions I do not believe the warrant was necessary," said the force.

Owens is unhappy that it took more than a year to respond to his complaint. The force's professional standards department has also denied his allegation that the officers who came to his house were "oppressive, intimidating and threatening", saying that there are no independent witnesses to support this.

The whistle blower said: "They have admitted the warrant was unlawful but I want a written apology and a full explanation and that's what I will be instructing my solicitor to seek."

Cheshire Police's Head of Professional Standards John Armstrong said the force was always ready to acknowledge its shortcomings and take necessary action. "Upon investigating Mr Owens' complaint we upheld a number of specific allegations as we found the service he received fell short of the high standards we and the public expect," he said.

"We wrote to Mr Owens earlier this year expressing our regret that he had cause to complain and we explained what action had been taken to address his concerns in respect of those complaints found to have substance. Cheshire Police take all complaints seriously and we investigate them thoroughly, informing the complainant of the outcome at the earliest opportunity."