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National reporters may be surprised to discover that they often commit a crime when obtaining material from a private detective or a scavenger who trawls rubbish.
Obtaining such material puts journalists and their employers at risk of prosecution for breaching data-protection laws or handling stolen goods.
The press complaints commission, the newspap-er industry’s regulator, should take a lead to clarify the issue.
I wrote a book, The Fleet Street Sewer Rat, published last month, detailing the activities of Benji “the binman” Pell, who made a fortune trawling the rubbish of lawyers and advisors to the rich and famous for documents to sell to newspapers.
Pell helped Fleet Street expose the stars’ secrets, but the revelations failed to meet a public-interest justification for his method.
The Mirror, for example, paid him for documents revealing Elton John’s extravagant spending habits. The newspaper’s willingness to buy documents retrieved from the rubbish of the singer’s long-time manager, including credit card statements, was understandable journalistically.
But the revelations, such as the singer’s enor-mous florist bill, were hardly matters of public interest. They resulted in Elton John splitting with his manager. Far from being a force for good, this was destructive journalism.
Such antics are not
the preserve of the red-tops. Journalists receiving material from Pell were
taking a risk: he was convicted for theft of “confidential waste”,
for taking rubbish from solicitors for the disgraced ex-Tory minister, Jonathan
Journalists and newspapers that received this mat-erial faced joining Pell in the dock – charged with handling stolen goods. As Pell says, “I don’t think there’s enough room.”
The issue of how journalists obtain confidential information has also been raised by a Scotland Yard investigation into the leaking of confidential police information to the press.
Two directors of private detective agencies ad-mitted last week at Blackfriars crown court to breaching the data protection act by the unauthorised obtaining of confidential information from the police national computer. A police control-room employee and a retired police officer who became a private detective had also admitted conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office.
The court heard that the charges related to 19 checks on the police national computer.
For example, Sunday Mirror journalists requested checks on the partner of an actor in Eastenders, Charlie Brooks, who played Janine Evans, and Jessie Wallace (Kat Slater). The first check proved fruitless and led to no article, but the latter resulted in a story headlined: “TV Kat’s guilty secrets; she hides criminal past from Eastender bosses.” The actor had two convictions: for shoplifting and drink-driving.
The four were conditionally discharged for two years over the PNC leaks, but the judge, John Samuels QC, warned: “A message has to go out to others who are tempted to act in a similar way. It will, in appropriate circumstances, result in immediate custodial sentences.”
“The vice of what those who admit the prim- ary conspiracy in this case actually did was to make known to the press information which, on any view, was bound to cause, at the very least, immense embarrassment to those members of the public who are entitled to require the state and its organs to maintain confidentiality in relation to their affairs.”
No journalist was prosecuted for making corrupt payments for police information or breaches of the data protection act – this time.
I understand that another police investigation has compiled long lists of journalist clients of private detectives – representing nearly all national news-papers – who sought other confidential information, such as data from telephone accounts or identities associated with vehicle registration numbers.
Journalists who think that all this is spoiling their fun should remember that they too can be victims of such activity.
First, Morgan recalled on ‘Breakfast With Frost’ how “the biter was bit”, saying that Pell targeted his newspaper’s office and found print-outs of his e-mail exchanges with management: they surfaced in Punch magazine.
Lord Hollick, when he ran Express Newspapers, banned his papers from buying material from Pell: the binman had found, and supplied Punch with, confidential medical information about Hollick’s daughter.
And I discovered that one private detective agency, hired by an aggrieved subject of my journalistic enquiry, broke into my mobile telephone account in a failed attempt to identify a possible confidential source. That agency is under criminal investigation for similar activity for its usual clients: not the press, but law firms.
The market imperative on newspapers effectively to force journalists to obtain confidential information at or beyond the edge of criminality is such that a ban will only work if the industry’s regulator acts.
The PCC code of practice fails to address the issue. Under clause 10, the press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by, amongst other things, the “unauthorised removal of documents”, unless it can be shown to be in the public interest. The clause, not intended to address taking rubbish that might contain documents, needs to be amended so that it does.
A further amendment is needed to ban the press from seeking to obtain or publish material acquired in contravention of section 55 of the data protection act (1998). But guidance is needed on the section because it could be interpreted to outlaw even some straightforward journalistic enquiry.
The national union of journalists (NUJ) does rather better because its code of conduct states, in clause five, that a journalist should obtain information “only by straightforward means” unless there are “over-riding considerations of the public interest”. But it needs to be more specific to address the problems.
Other versions of this article first appeared in Press Gazette and Journalist, the NUJ magazine. Mark Watts is author of The Fleet Street Sewer Rat, available in hardback for £10.00 from www.fleet-street-sewer-rat.com.
FOIA Centre commentary
Journalists in Britain employ exotic methods of gathering information because they face an entrenched culture of secrecy. There must be a quid pro quo. A society that rejects journalists’ practice of paying private detectives or bin scavengers for confidential information must also rid itself of obsessive secrecy, for example, by making the freedom of information act (FOIA) and other “open-access” laws much less restrictive.
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