Steve Whittamore was known all over Fleet Street. I once used him myself, although I had no recollection of this until I saw the entry, tucked away among the 17,000 other transactions with journalists.
It was from January 1999, a search to confirm the identity and address of a veteran conman and serial fraudster who had taken control of a charity that was being trusted by the Home Office to run entire wings of British prisons. The occupancy search was not illegal, but a phone conversion – without a public interest justification – would have been a breach of the Data Protection Act, although the Act was not in force at that time.
The subject of the inquiry, one Kenner Jones, has more than 60 convictions and was later prosecuted for defrauding the charity. More recently, he moved to Kenya, where he was accused by the BBC of posing as a priest and working as a doctor without medical qualifications.
This was Whittamore's only business with The Independent but he was kept busy by most of the rest of the national press. There are about 400 journalists named in the Operation Motorman files, including some of the most experienced reporters in Fleet Street and others working in magazines and television. They range from investigations specialists and newsdesk executives to showbiz hacks and diary writers.
His colour-coded books – in red, blue, green and yellow – carefully recorded the subject of his inquiry, the name of the journalist requesting the information, the nature of the work and the subsequent result. In order to make the records more searchable, the original Motorman team had the information from the books transferred to computer dics at a cost of several thousand pounds. Further colour-coding was used to distinguish between the type of job – a criminal records check would appear in bright green, vehicle checks in grey, a Friends and Family telephone search in pink and a blag in white.
Some searches were in the public interest but a large proportion of Whittamore's inquiries concerned the personal lives of celebrities. Some inquiries were ordered so that the journalist could simply speak to people who were the subject of an article. Others were apparently searches for salacious gossip.
At the end of the 1990s, when Whittamore was building his network of investigators and newspaper clients, the evolution of computer technology was at a stage that now seems positively prehistoric.
This was the world before Google, the search tool that has made it possible to contact almost anyone with a minimum of time and effort. It was an era when mobile telephones were less ubiquitous and when numbers were guarded much more fiercely than they are now. It was a time before the Data Protection Act, which came into force in March 2000. In that environment, a service that offered to locate individuals at short notice was invaluable to journalists, and Whittamore's business boomed.