A 2003 raid on Whittamore’s home appeared to catch the British press red-handed, with his client list containing the names of about 305 journalists from 32 media outlets. They came to him for information, the kind that is hard to get in a country with notoriously strict privacy laws. For a little more than $200, court records show, Whittamore supplied information about criminal records of celebrities that was bought via a corrupt official at Scotland Yard. For a tad more, he could name the owners of vehicles — a trick used to identify the possible paramours of famous British personalities — through the same illegal source.
Among the materials seized at his home, officials say, were phone numbers of family members of Milly Dowler, a young murder victim. The Dowler hacking case openly shocked the nation and finally ignited a full-blown scandal last month. Authorities say they think the phone numbers were obtained after Whittamore misrepresented himself as a relative or employer, in violation of Britain’s Data Protection Act.
His 2005 conviction, however, led only to a slight tap on the wrist: no fine, and a suspended sentence without jail time. None of the journalists who hired him was investigated. After a 2006 report largely based on his case, a crusade was launched to win harsher sentences for violators of the Data Protection Act. The effort died in Parliament in 2008.
“There was this sense out there that a little bit of gossip didn’t really do anyone any harm,” said Chris Bryant, a lawmaker from the opposition Labor Party and a repeated target of the tabloid press, which he believes used illegal methods to obtain private data about a former partner. “And politicians were terrified of putting their heads above the parapet and challenging these tabloids that sold millions of copies. We know now that was wrong.”
Hiding in plain sight?
Illicit newsgathering in Britain finally burst to the forefront last month in the form of one practice at one newspaper — phone hacking at the News of the World, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. But for years, many here argue, it was hiding in plain sight.
Former British tabloid editors, including Piers Morgan and Rebekah Brooks, head of News Corp.’s British newspapers before her resignation last month, have denied direct knowledge of phone hacking. But they have suggested that the use of private investigators employing dubious methods was common in the industry.