Observer readers' editor says blagged information was used for public interest stories

Four years after an Information Commissioner report which revealed the extent to which newspapers bought potentially illegal information from a private investigator – the Observer has revealed new details about its involvement in the affair.

Observer readers’ editor Stephen Pritchard investigated the matter in response  to the accusation from Louse Bagshawe MP that it was involved in phone-hacking.

Pritchard insists that she has wrongly conflated the issue of data-blagging with phone-hacking.

The Observer was named on a list of newspapers which bought information from private investigator Steve Whittamore in its report What Price Privacy Now? Whittamore was prosecuted for breaching the Data Protection Act, but no journalists were prosecuted because – the Information Commissioner later said – he did not have the resources to investigate all 305 journalist who had acquired information from Whittamore.

As Information Commissioner Christopher Graham told MPs in 2009, “If we were to investigate one journalist we would have had to investigate all of them and prove that the information was illegally obtained. An ex-directory phone number, for instance, may have been obtained legally.”

The Observer came ninth on the list of news organisations which bought information from Whittamore – with four journalists purchasing 103 items.

Whittamore was prosecuted for blagging information such as phone numbers by using deception. It is worth noting that one of the reasons the ICO did not prosecute any journalists was that they may not have known that the information was obtained illegally.

Pritchard has looked at Whittamore’s paperwork and does not say whether or not every one of those 103 items would have definitely passed the public interest test, which is a defence under the data-protection act, but he writes that many of them would have done.

“It’s the nature of journalism that some inquiries prove fruitless, but a cross-referencing of targets in Whittamore’s register with names that appeared in the paper establishes that many stories in the public interest were being produced. Examples include articles on racketeering landlords, radical Islamic clerics, germ warfare test victims, fugitive war criminals and crooked politicians.

“Where does this leave the paper today? The Observer has said that in the past it has used a private investigator to help it establish stories it believed to be in the public interest. Publishing in the public interest is entirely defensible under the Data Protection Act. And that’s the important distinction: intercepting another person’s phone messages is just plain illegal.”

In January Press Gazette asked Guardian News and Media, Telegraph Media Group, Trinity Mirror, the BBC and the Daily Mail whether they had ever received a complaint about alleged phone-hacking. So far only Guardian News & Media, which owns the Observer, has responded to the question. GNM says there has never been any suggestion that any of their journalists have hacked mobile phone messages.

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