Westminster’s “systematic failure” to regulate the press

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by a Newsnet reporter

As the Levenson inquiry into press ethics opens, the SNP has repeated its call for its remit to be widened in order to include examination of the findings of the Motorman Report.  The report, published in 2006 by the Information Commissioner’s Office, uncovered evidence of a widespread illegal trade in personal information, and found that “a range of newspapers” were amongst those involved.  The report revealed details of over 3000 cases of illegal information trading by newspapers.

In 2006 Sir Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, wrote in his annual report to the Westminster Parliament:

“Much more illegal activity lies hidden under the surface. Investigations by the Information Commissioner’s Office and the police have uncovered evidence of a widespread and organised undercover market in confidential personal information.  Such evidence formed the core of the report, detailing how the unlawful trade in personal information operates: who the buyers are, what information they are seeking, how that information is obtained for them, and how much it costs.

“Among the ultimate ‘buyers’ are many journalists looking for a story.  In one major case investigated by the ICO, the evidence included records of information supplied to 305 named journalists working for a range of newspapers.”

The report called on the Lord Chancellor, then Labour’s Charles Falconer, to raise the penalties for illegal information trafficking from the current fine to a prison sentence of up to 2 years, “in order to discourage this undercover market and to send out a clear signal that obtaining personal information unlawfully is a crime.”

Despite the damning finding of the report and the clear recommendations it made, no action was taken by the then Labour government to curb illegal activities in the press.  When the Coalition government gained power in 2010, it too took no action.  

The Scottish government believes that Westminster has “serious questions” to answer as to why the situation was allowed to continue even though the Westminster government was fully appraised of a widespread culture of illegality amongst the British press.

In July this year, First Minister Alex Salmond urged the UK government to widen the remit of the Levenson inquiry to examine the findings of the report.  With the inquiry’s official opening today, there is still no clarity whether the Motorman report will come under Lord Levenson’s remit or not.

Yesterday SNP Westminster spokesperson on Culture and Media, Pete Wishart MP, has again urged the inquiry to consider the findings of the Information Commissioner’s report from 2006.

Mr Wishart said:

“The hacking activities by News of the World were reprehensible, but we cannot assume they were confined to just one newspaper or form of media.  It is disappointing that the Prime Minister rejected the Scottish government’s call to include an investigation into the findings of the Information Commissioner’s 2006 report on Operation Motorman within its terms of reference.

“Lord Levenson’s inquiry should not be limited, but extended to all aspects of the media, not just confined to phone hacking.

“We know from the Information Commissioner’s report of over 3,000 breaches of data protection laws by a range of titles which were documented – yet neither the previous UK Labour government nor the Tory Lib Dem coalition did a thing about it, and ignored the tough recommendations.

“Westminster has presided over a systematic failure to regulate the press, just as it totally failed to provide proper regulation of the financial sector.

“A free and vigorous press is a bedrock of our democratic system, but clearly that cannot and must not extend to newspapers acting in violation of the laws of the land, which is what has been allowed to happen for years – despite the Operation Motorman report in 2006.”