Information Commissioner cannot be surprised at partial publication of Motorman files

by Brian Cathcart

The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, is angry about the publication on the Guido Fawkes blog of part of the Motorman files. What he doesn’t say, because no reasonable person could make such a claim, is that he is surprised that this has happened.

Plenty of people have gained access to this information over the past nine years. In and around the Leveson Inquiry the Motorman files are an open secret, with lawyers at public hearings able to question witnesses on the content (though normally without revealing anything substantive to the public).

Leaks were inevitable. Fairly detailed reports have appeared in the Guardian, in the Independent and on ITN news among other places, and now we have a data dump of the smallest of the four files. Whether Mr Graham or Lord Justice Leveson wants it to happen or not, piecemeal disclosure is proceeding.

This is not satisfactory and they should act firmly and swiftly to take charge, by declaring that there will be a full, professional and rapid redaction process of all the files to protect the privacy of the targeted individuals, and that as soon as this is complete the redacted files will be published in full.

It is not satisfactory for several reasons. One is that we at Hacked Off believe it would be better to withhold the names of the listed ‘subjects’, those individuals who were the targets of Whittamore’s activities. Instead they should be presented by category – ‘agent to actor’, ‘employee of leading business figure’, ‘politician’ and so on, unless they agree to have their names published.

This is a scandal about industrial breaches of privacy: it can’t be right to put these names in the public domain now, especially if they have not been informed in advance. That kind of redaction requires research, resources and good management; it is not within the capacities of a blogger.

It is also unsatisfactory because, believe it or not, it is unfair to News International. This is the company caught up in the hacking scandal, and now it is the one that is exposed in Motorman, even though it only accounted for about 6 per cent of all the inquiries across all the Motorman files.

Motorman sheds light on the culture, ethics and practices of almost all the national press, and not just one title. It is important that it should be in the public domain, so far as is consistent with the privacy of its victims. The Information Commissioner should forget any idea that it can be withheld in the long term, and so should Lord Justice Leveson. Instead they should put their heads together and ensure that disclosure, however overdue, happens in a sensible fashion.

Brian Cathcart, a founder of Hacked Off, teaches journalism at Kingston University and tweets at @BrianCathcart

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)