by Brian Cathcart
The Daily Mail, in a rage about solicitors allegedly employing rogue private investigators, has denounced a ‘wall of silence‘ among big law firms while at the same time accusing them of using ‘nothing but weasel words’.
The paper says it contacted 33 law firms to ask whether they had employed private investigators and if so what they had done to ensure they didn’t break the law. Seven of them replied – which makes the wall of silence pretty permeable – and they generally did so in what most people would surely consider reassuring terms.
One said: ‘Our standard terms of engagement are explicit that an investigator is instructed not to act unlawfully or illegally.’ Another replied: ‘We would never contemplate giving them a job that would involve breaking the law.’ A third: ‘We very rarely instruct private investigators. I can’t remember the last occasion that I did.’
Are those really weasel words? Reading them, you might ask yourself what kind of words the Daily Mail might use if it found itself in the same position these law firms are in.
Well it so happens that we know the answer, because the Mail was in precisely that position at the Leveson Inquiry.
As we have pointed out, a number of national newspapers have employed dodgy private investigators and it was the Mail that came top of the list of papers using Steve Whittamore, who was convicted in connection with obtaining confidential information by deception.
The Information Commissioner’s Office said that Whittamore’s records showed 952 transactions with 58 Daily Mail journalists up to 2003. A subsequent investigation by ITV News found much higher figures: 1,728 transactions with 65 Mail journalists, and a bill of £143,150.
So, when the paper’s editor, Paul Dacre, was asked to discuss his paper’s use of Whittamore in front of the Leveson Inquiry last year, what words did he use? Here is a selection (P46 on):
– ‘I was not personally aware of the extent that our journalists were using search agencies.’
– ‘We’re talking about many, many years ago [nine years, at the time], and a system that was used by all the media, insurance companies, law firms, everybody.’
– ‘We didn’t realise they [some of Whittamore’s activities] were illegal. There was a very hazy understanding of how the Data Protection Act worked . . .’
– ‘I think a managing editor held conversations with a lot of journalists and heads of departments and said, ‘Look, do you know – what do you believe you were doing here?’ They said they were only getting phone numbers and addresses and they didn’t seem to think they were behaving illegally.’
– ‘From what we know now, I would accept there was a prima facie case that Whittamore could have been acting illegally. I don’t accept that this is evidence that our journalists were actively behaving illegally. We have to know the facts, whether there was a public interest. We don’t know what the journalists asked for, we don’t know what it related to and whether it actually was provided, whether the information was actually provided.’
Finally, for the avoidance of doubt, Hacked Off believes that anyone, journalist, lawyer or otherwise, who knowingly or recklessly commissions actions by private investigators that may be illegal, should be investigated by the police and if appropriate prosecuted – except in rare cases where a compelling public interest can be shown.
Brian Cathcart is Executive Director, Hacked Off.