Brian Cathcart: The glaring blind spot in Leveson's inquiry that must not be ignored

Media Studie: The Motorman files are no more history thanhacking. We should be told

Brian Cathcart
Monday 02 April 2012 00:59 BST

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The Leveson inquiry, so often referred to (though generally by journalists) as "flawed", or even "deeply flawed", is doing a fine job and generally a fair one. Anyone who tunes in or attends will know the hearings are peppered with interventions by the judge in which he declares his determination to protect free speech, prevent score-settling and acknowledge the necessary untidiness and truculence of good journalism.

At the same time he makes clear that he does not like a great deal of what he has heard (and who could?) and he reminds his listeners of the need for meaningful change. It bodes well.

Yet there is a blind spot, and that is Motorman – the files recording thousands of often illegal data acquisitions by private investigator Steve Whittamore, acting on the instructions of hundreds of journalists at most national newspaper groups (though not this one).

Lord Justice Leveson has seen these files in their entirety. So have the lawyers at the inquiry, including those acting for the press, and so have many of the journalist witnesses. The files are occasionally mentioned at hearings in guarded terms, but the public can't see them and it is impossible to get to grips with essential issues such as the scope and scale of the illegality, the reasons for it and the responsibility for it.

Now, in a neat piece of irony courtesy of ITN, even though we can't see the files we know they are worse than was thought. ITN reported last week that Whittamore did more business than previously reported, that more of his tasks were potentially illegal and that very large sums were spent on them.

By way of example, ITN found that the Daily Mirror used Whittamore 984 times, which is 300 more than the previous estimate, at a total price of about £92,000. It found 79 instances of the paper asking for number-plate checks (normally illegal) and 19 criminal record checks (ditto).

The accused papers say this is all old hat (Motorman dates from 2003) and that no one was prosecuted, which is hardly an impressive response, but for reasons of his own Lord Justice Leveson is letting them get away with this.

Yet his inquiry is about press culture, practice and ethics, and Motorman is a goldmine of information on those subjects. How do editors and reporters justify these intrusions (which, we are told, generally relate to trivial stories)? How often were they really illegal? When did it stop? How leaky are the organisations that hold our data? Could it all happen again?

It's no more history than hacking, and the odds are that a good number of the journalists involved are now in senior posts. We should be told.

What the ITN leak reveals most forcefully is that, despite the silence of most papers (and again, not this one) there is no keeping the lid on this material.

Two things are essential: that the central information in the files is disclosed to the public without fear or favour and that the privacy of the people targeted by Whittamore should be protected by the careful redaction of their details. The more that is left to piecemeal, unofficial disclosure, the greater the risk of distortion and of further intrusion.

It may not be in Lord Justice Leveson's power, for legal reasons, to disclose the files. That could be something that only the Information Commissioner's Office can do, since it seized the data in the first place.

But the Commissioner, Christopher Graham, doesn't share the inquiry's responsibility to expose evidence of press misconduct to the public, and so the danger is that disclosure will be needlessly delayed by formalities.

It might be best if, sooner rather than later, the judge instructed or invited Mr Graham to get the job done, and to submit the redacted version of the files to the inquiry for the purpose of publication.

Once that was done, the Information Commissioner could get on with another job he is surely going to have to do sooner or later, which is to inform all of those hundreds or thousands of people illegally targeted by Whittamore on behalf of the press that they have been victims of crime.

Unsung writers show that journalism is in good shape

In recent weeks I have been helping judge the journalism category in the 2012 Orwell prizes, and the job has entailed a welcome exposure to the cream of British and Irish journalism.

Nearly 150 people entered, and they included not only recognised stars of the national press but also, refreshingly, quite a few whose work I didn't know and whose names I had not seen before. Though not many made the long list, which was announced last week (and includes Steve Richards, David Usborne and John Rentoul of this parish), I found myself wishing we had an additional "honourable mention" list, to draw attention to work that is original and enterprising even if it doesn't fit the Orwell frame.

Notable in that category would be a couple of writers from The Detail, a Northern Ireland investigative journalism outfit whose work I had not read before. Mostly online and funded with a mixture of public money and philanthropic donations, The Detail sets a vigorous example of journalism holding authority to account. Track it down on the web and have a look.

Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and is a member of Hacked Off

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