Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/07/14/notw_privacy_scandal_opinion/

Phone hack obsession obscures NotW privacy scandal

What about illegal access to tax, bank, police records?

By John Leyden

Posted in Law, 14th July 2009 11:33 GMT

Comment One of the more curious aspects of the ongoing News of the World privacy invasion scandal is the focus on mobile phone hacking accusations, when a far wider range of dubious and downright criminal tactics were allegedly in play at the tabloid newspaper.

Clive Goodman, the NotW's former royal correspondent and Glen Mulcaire, a private detective accomplice, were each jailed for illegal wiretapping of the mobile phones of royal aides and celebrities in January 2007. Mulcaire hacked PIN codes associated with the mobile phone numbers of Royal aides and celebrities to access their voicemail messages, which were then accessed for possible newsworthiness. It seems likely that Mulcaire used social engineering trickery to reset these mobile PINs to a number he could then pass on to unscrupulous journalists, certainly Goodman and perhaps others (either directly or through Goodman).

According to police, Goodman and Mulcaire were engaged in a "sophisticated and wide ranging conspiracy to gather personal data about high profile figures" and phone tapping tactics affected a "much smaller pool of people". Other allegedly criminal tactics used in a muck-raking expedition included obtaining "unlawful access to confidential personal data, including tax records, social security files, bank statements and itemised phone bills".

The scandal was reopened last week after The Guardian reported that three public figures whose phones had been illegally tapped received hush-hush payments totalling £1m in legal fees and damages. Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers Association, was paid £700K in damages and legal fees in exchange for dropping a privacy lawsuit. Other targets of the wiretap reportedly included John Prescott.

It's also given many celebrity victims of NotW exposes a chance to grind their axe.

Subsequent extensive media coverage has focused on two strands, to the exclusion of other issues. Firstly there is the issue of whose phones were hacked into, or had their voicemail messages intercepted. Taylor, model Elle Macpherson, Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes, publicist Max Clifford, and football agent Sky Andrew were named in the original wiretapping case against Mulcaire and Goodman.

Newspapers, both highbrow and popular, have reported over the last week that football managers Alex Ferguson and Alan Shearer left messages on Taylor's voicemail, so these messages might have been intercepted. Many column inches have also been poured out over whether former deputy prime minister John Prescott was the victim of wiretapping, as he loudly complains, or not, as the police say.

This aspect of the case has presented another perfect opportunity for the UK press to engage in their preoccupation with the lives of celebrities and sportspersons.

The other strand dominating coverage is the more important issue of whether the illegal news gathering tactics were in widespread use at the News of the World and perhaps The Sun, as The Guardian argues, or confined to the Goodman, as News International maintains.

Again this has focused on mobile phone records. What's been ignored is that a far greater variety of illegal activities were also allegedly in play, as described by The Guardian.

In suppressing Taylor's legal action, News Group buried not only the Scotland Yard evidence but also paperwork that had been seized by the Information Commission from a Hampshire private investigator, Steve Whittamore, who had been running a network of sources who specialised in the illegal extraction of information from police computers, British Telecom, the DVLA, Inland Revenue and others. Whittamore subsequently pleaded guilty to criminal offences, although the newspapers who hired him were never prosecuted.

Goodman and Mulcaire's action were a violation of UK wiretapping law, specifically the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, but offences were also made in accessing police databases and tax records by the NotW, The Guardian alleges.

Working on instructions from the News of the World, Whittamore and his network also conned the criminal records database of the police, which is a specific criminal offence; the Inland Revenue, also a specific criminal offence; a cab company used by Ken Livingstone; a Paris hotel used by Jason Donovan; the actors union, Equity, for the addresses of actors; Granada TV, for information on a Coronation Street actor; and on numerous occasions the DVLA for the home details of people whose car numbers they had spotted. The News of the World has insisted that its journalists use subterfuge only when justified in the public interest.

Almost nobody, except for some of the original stories in The Guardian, picked up on the allegation about criminal access to police and tax authority computers for no higher purpose than to investigate celebrity gossip*.

Still less has been said about the access to celebrity bank statements.

It's as if the efforts of the Major Crime Unit in The Wire boiled down to Lester Freamon's wiretaps and every other investigative technique used by the unit was completely disregarded or ignored.

Perhaps the obsession with unlawful wiretaps reflects a need to simplify a complex set of accusations. Or perhaps it reflects a perception that private conversations are somehow more sacrosanct in British society, which accepts the high concentration of privacy-invasive CCTV cameras, and willingly exchanges minor discounts for the privilege of having store purchases data mined by supermarkets. ®

Bootnote

* The main revelation from Goodwin's fishing expedition, and his ultimate undoing, lest we forget, was that he discovered that Prince William had injured his knee. It's hardly uncovering wrong-doing in high-office or corruption in sport.

As it stands, the re-opened scandal may well result in the introduction of tighter privacy laws to protect UK celebrities, who already enjoy the protection of laws on defamation than are among the toughest in the world.