Newspaper payments for potentially illegal information revealed

Lucy Manning

Former UK Editor

Reconstruction: The Motorman Files Credit: ITV News

An exclusive investigation by ITV News has discovered the true scale of payments made by many of Britain’s best selling newspapers between early 2000 and March 2003 for potentially illegal personal information. We’ve learnt titles including the Mail and the Express made more requests than were previously thought to a private investigator for phone numbers, addresses and other information. Many of them may have been obtained illegally, unless the information got was in the public interest.

The full scale of the payments and what they were for has never been released before. Now ITV News has had full access to the “Motorman files” and using independent auditors has come up with the most accurate assessment yet of what newspapers were paying and what they were paying for.

They include £143,150 paid by the Daily Mail and its Weekend magazine for over 1,700 requests for potentially illegal information, and £92,000 paid by the Mirror for nearly a thousand requests

Operation Motorman was an Investigation carried out by the Information Commissioner in 2003 into the work of private investigator Steve Whittamore. In 2005 he and three others were convicted of illegally accessing information. But the ITV News investigation of the full files shows there were many more cases than were ever revealed at the time.


Whittamore kept files on all the searches he was hired for. Everything was logged in the files. The information that was legal: area searches, occupancy searches. And the potentially illegal:

  • Ex-directory number searches

  • Numbers available on the BT Friends and family portal

  • Criminal record checks on the Police National Computer

  • Vehicle Registration numbers for number plate checks onthe DVLA computer

  • Phone number reversals - where a name and address is obtained from a phone number

  • Blags- using deception to get information which should not be disclosed

The details for a period from early 2000 until March 2003 all went into four coloured books. There were over 17 thousand entries, four thousand names at least, from members of the royal family to ordinary members of the public.

They included Kate Middleton and her sister Pippa, the family of murder victim Holly Wells, England footballers, Lenny Henry, and Charlotte Church

Many of the details of Charlotte Church's family, friends and ex-boyfriend were discovered in these files. She told ITV News: "It was so all encompassing, everyone I'd ever known. Just bizarre, really bizarre."

Journalists hired Steve Whittamore to get this information for them. Which he did either through deception or often with the help of corrupt officials.

If it was in the public interest journalists could use this information legally, but if there was no public interest then a lot if it was almost certainly illegal.

Alec Owens the man who originally investigated this for the Information Commissioner told ITV News: "This was happening on a massive scale. The journalists were using Whittamore to get all the confidential information they could, that they couldn't get by legal means."

ITV News has now published the first detailed, audited look at who was paying Whittamore for what. It's the best analysis there can be given the data.

And from the four coloured Motorman books, it's possible to see many of the potentially illegal transactions over a three year period, up until 2003.

From those that can be categorised, and some can't, the most requests were from 65 journalists working for the Daily Mail and it's Weekend magazine.

1,728 transactions, that's almost double previously disclosed by the Information Commissioner, including Kate and Pippa Middleton's details.

Duchess of Cambridge and her sister Pippa Middleton's details appeared in the files Credit: Reuters

We've calculated the Mail paid Whittamore £143,150 for this potentially illegal information. According to what we've seen in the books the next biggest spenders were the Daily Mirror who spent more than £92,000 on potentially illegal information and made nearly a thousand requests.

Close behind the Mirror is their stable-mate the People, spending more than £76 000, requesting 1,016 potentially illegal searches.

Other newspaper spending on possibly illegal searches in the Motorman files include:

The Mail on Sunday spent £62,025

The Evening Standard spent £29,598

The Sunday Mirror spent £27,807

The News of the World is revealed to have spent £23,306

The Daily Express and the Observer both spent around £13,000

The full details of what we calculated each newspaper paid, and for what, can be viewed here, together with the number of transactions previously calculated by the Information Commission in their report "What Price Privacy Now".


There were also several boxes of invoices with not as much detail as the books. So it's impossible to tell from these what was legal and what was potentially illegal. But they do show the newspapers were actually spending even bigger amounts of money for Steve Whittamore's information, although we don’t know what for.

From the invoices we found News International spent an additional £490,738.66

Trinity Mirror: £376,918.07

Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Mail: £268,311.40

Express Newspapers: £95,430.26

The BBC, ITV and others used Whittamore - ITN which makes ITV News spent £141 with him

We contacted all the named newspapers for a response. Between them the main points they raised were that the issue had been looked at by the Information Commissoner's Office in 2006, that this is being addressed by the Leveson Inquiry, they've changed their procedures, and that many of the cases were covered by a public interest defence.

You can read the full responses here.

Charlotte Church says she wants more to come out of the Motorman investigation. "I'd love for them to re-open the investigation and bring the people to justice who deemed this acceptable in our national press," she said.

And Alec Owens who led the original investigation says the newspapers should have faced action and all those whose details were bought should have been told. He thinks only about 1% of the victims have been informed.