The two faces of the press on regulation of private investigators

The press defended PIs from regulation, then turned around and asked why they hadn't been regulated.

The revelation that firms from two of this country’s biggest industries may have commissioned corrupt PIs – without facing prosecution – will fuel concerns that corporations potentially involved in the unlawful trade in private information have so far escaped proper investigation

Tom Harper, The Independent, 25th July 2013

There has been a rising volume of consternation in parts of the press about why non-media companies that used private investigators – who have been found to have acted illegally – were not pursued and prosecuted by the authorities.

What none of the reports to date have explored is why many of these cases were not pursued in 2007/08. Instead they have given the impression that the press was unfairly singled out.

The reason why many of these cases were not pursued in 2007/08 was because the press prevented it. It did this by campaigning aggressively and successfully to block the increase of sanctions for this type of crime. Without such an increase it was, the Information Commissioner said, almost impossible to justify the pursuit and prosecution of the culprits, let alone their clients.

To see what happened one has to go back to 2006 and the publication of a report by the Information Commissioner. It was evidence from this report, and other police operations, on which the 2008 SOCA report was based. This is the same SOCA report that has been the focus of so much current attention.

This 2006 report, What Price Privacy?, outlined the scale of the illegal trade in personal information, citing the industrial scale blagging being done on behalf of newspapers, but making clear that the trade was certainly not restricted to the media.

As well as journalists, the report said, illegal information gathering "involved finance companies and local authorities wishing to trace debtors; estranged couples seeking details of their partner’s whereabouts or finances; and criminals intent on fraud or witness or juror intimidation".

The report contained a short section on each these non-media clients, and even specified the amount being spent by some non-media clients:

Documents seized from the tracing agent working for finance houses and local councils revealed that one agent was invoicing for up to £120,000 per month of positive tracing.

The problem, the ICO said, was that even if it pursued and prosecuted the private investigators guilty of gathering and selling this information then "those apprehended and convicted by the courts often face derisory penalties".

These penalties – often only £100 or £150 fines – did not act as a deterrent and did not justify the police, ICO and prosecution time to pursue.

The chief recommendation of the 2006 report was, therefore, that sanctions should be increased so that they would act as a deterrent. At the same time it would make it more justified for the authorities to pursue cases and prosecute the private investigators and their clients.

"The Information Commissioner calls on the Lord Chancellor," What Price Privacy? said, "to bring forward proposals to raise the penalty for persons convicted on indictment of section 55 offences to a maximum two years’ imprisonment, or a fine, or both; and for summary convictions, to a maximum six months’ imprisonment, or a fine, or both"

But when the report was published, the media, rather than focus on the private investigators, the insurance companies or other clients, focused almost exclusively on the potential effect of the increase of sanctions on the media.

In the second report the ICO published in 2006 (What Price Privacy Now?) the Information Commissioner remarked on the media’s response and again stressed that, despite the media’s concerns, the problem went much wider than the press:

Some of the press coverage since the report has highlighted the intrusion into the lives of high profile public figures by the media but it should not be forgotten that this trade also affects the lives of people not in the public eye and is very often unrelated to media activity.

The Commissioner’s efforts were in vain as the press continued to focus, for the following 18 months, almost entirely on the implications of the ICO’s recommendations for the press, and began a campaign to prevent the increase of sanctions.

Leveson describes the consequences of the ICO reports and recommendations:

The first was the mobilisation of a political lobbying effort by the press against the campaign [of the ICO for increased sanctions], directed to the heart of government. The second was the hardening of the attitude of the press (now unmistakably represented by the PCC) towards the ICO.

p.1024, Vol.3

Two of leaders of the press campaign, according to the Leveson report, were Murdoch McClellan (then Chief Executive of the Telegraph Group) and Guy Black (also at the Telegraph Group).

In the summer of 2007 the editor of the Daily Mail (Paul Dacre), Murdoch McClellan of the Telegraph and the Les Hinton of News International had dinner with the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to persuade him to help them stop the increase in sanction going through.

The campaign stepped up its efforts through early 2008 with some media interests "lobbying the Conservatives heavily in favour of removal" of the amendment to the law to increase the sanction (quote from the Information Commissioner, 25 March 2008).

Leveson was scathing about the objectives of this campaign:

The argument that the prospect of custody would have a differential "chilling" effect on lawful and ethical journalism from the prospect of a financial penalty is one which it is barely respectable for national press organisations to advance at all. Its necessary implication is that the prospect of a criminal conviction can, of itself, be regarded as a tolerable business risk, and a criminal fine a tolerable overhead, in journalism. This says little more than that "unchilled" journalism is an activity which takes calculated risks with deliberate and indefensible criminality. This is an argument for criminal impunity including (as it was put before the Inquiry) by way of a plea for indemnity from the otherwise universal application of criminal penalties; it amounts to special pleading to be placed above the law.

p.1091, Vol.3

Yet the press campaign was successful. Even though the amendments were drafted in section 77 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, they were never commenced. They have still not commenced.

As a consequence, the authority responsible for pursuing cases of blagging and related offences – the ICO, continued to be severely constrained in the action it could take.

Certain news organisations, in other words, effectively prevented the pursuit of organisations that were illegally acquiring personal information in 2007/08 and onwards. These same news organisations are now claiming the failure to pursue these organisations is evidence of an unfair singling out of the press through the Leveson Inquiry.

The Leveson inquiry. Photograph: Getty Images
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide