David Leigh of the Guardian has been added to the list of UK journalists who’ve engaged in phone hacking and other illegal/unethical conduct. Some of the more questionable conduct by UK journalists has involved their acquisition of information from police that police were not legally entitled to disclose either for payment or as a favour. David Leigh also had a role in the Empire Strikes Back phase of Climategate early last year and, in today’s post, I’ll discuss the connection.
There is certainly a voyeuristic thrill in hearing another person’s private messages…
Leigh differentiated his illegal phone hacking from that practised by News of the World because his cause was noble:
unlike Goodman, I was not interested in witless tittle-tattle about the royal family. I was looking for evidence of bribery and corruption.
Now the Climategate connection.
In February 2010, a couple of months after Neil Wallis of Outside Organisation had been retained by the University of East Anglia to help them strike back against critics, Leigh authored a smear against Paul Dennis of the University of East Anglia, entitled:
Detectives question climate change scientist over email leaks: University of East Anglia scientist Paul Dennis denies leaking material, but links to climate change sceptics in US drew him to attention of the investigators
Leigh’s smear began by reporting that Norfolk police had interviewed Paul Dennis (as, presumably, other faculty of the University of East Anglia.) However, Dennis had “refused to sign a petition in support of Jones when the scandal broke”. Furthermore, according to Leigh’s apparently disapproving “university sources”, Dennis was reported to have sent a letter to UEA head of department Jacquie Burgess “calling for more open release of data” – suspicious activity indeed. Dennis had also refused to observe the fatwa against communication with climate blogs that were critical of CRU and the Team and had even sent an article on isotopes to Jeff Id.
Leigh’s article disclosed two pieces of information that were not in the public domain.
First, Leigh “outed” Jeff Id by name, occupation and hometown. To that point, “Jeff Id” had been anonymous. His registration at WordPress was anonymous and his gmail account was anonymous. To Jeff’s knowledge, there was no public information that would enable Leigh to identify him.
A few days before the article, Leigh had telephoned Jeff. Jeff asked Leigh how he had located him; Leigh refused to say. Jeff expressly asked Leigh not to disclose his personal information, which were then not on the public record. Leigh disregarded the request and then proceeded to “out” him as collateral damage in their smear of Paul Dennis.
A couple of weeks earlier, Jeff had been asked to answer a questionnaire by the UK counter-terrorism officer investigating the release of the emails and tree ring data. The policeman had contacted Jeff at his gmail address as “Jeff Id”. In addition to inquiring about his views on climate change, the questionnaire asked his name and address. Jeff answered the questionnaire (as did I and many Climate Audit readers). To Jeff’s knowledge and recollection, that was the only disclosure of his identity that could have led to Leigh identifying him.
Leigh’s article also quotes from an email from Paul Dennis to me, which Leigh ascribed to “police files”.
UK police are subject to the Data Protection Act, which prevents the disclosure of personal data for unauthorized purposes -see the webpage of the Norfolk Constabulary on this topic here, which states:
Disclosure or passing of personal information to other organisations or individuals is strictly controlled….
The Police work in partnership with other agencies to reduce crime and disorder, reduce the fear of crime and protect the vulnerable. In order to work together it is necessary to share information. Often this information is about crime figures or areas where crime or disorder is a particular problem. However, sometimes it is necessary to share personal information to tackle a particular problem involving an identified offender or victim. Sometimes information is shared to assist the partner agency in carrying out their lawful functions, but only when it is necessary and proportionate to do so.
Given the recent publicity about illegal and unethical practices by UK journalists, often involving UK police, both Jeff and I obviously wondered about David Leigh’s access to the above information. On July 25, we wrote to Damian Carrington, Environment Editor of the Guardian about the matter. (I had previously corresponded with Carrington in connection with my appearance at the Guardian symposium in July 2010 and was treated very cordially both by Carrington and other Guardian representatives on this well-convened occasion.) The following email was sent prior to the recent publicity of David Leigh’s past history of phone hacking (for causes that he believed to be virtuous):
Dear Mr Carrington,
In case you did not already know, in 2009-2010, Neil Wallis, then of Outside Organisation, acted as consultant to the University of East Anglia because “the university’s Climatic Research Unit wanted Outside to fire back some shots on the scientists’ behalf”. As is now widely known, at the time, Wallis was also then acting as a consultant for the Met Police. I am planning to write some articles on this and would appreciate a comment from you on an article published by the Guardian.
On Feb 5, 2010, the Guardian published an article by David Leigh, Charles Arthur and Rob Evans entitled “Detectives question climate change scientist over email leaks: University of East Anglia scientist Paul Dennis denies leaking material, but links to climate change sceptics in US drew him to attention of the investigators” http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/feb/04/climate-change-email-hacking-leaks
In the article, you identify the blogger known as “Jeff Id” as “Patrick Condon, aeronautical engineer from Morris, Illinois”. At the time, to the best of my knowledge and to the best of Condon’s knowledge, there was then no legitimately available information that would have enabled the authors of the Guardian article to identify “Id” as “Patrick Condon, aeronautical engineer from Morris, Illinois”.
The article also includes a quote from an email from Paul Dennis to me, the provenance of which is described in the article as “files obtained by police”.
Can you provide me and Mr Condon with an unequivocal statement that the Guardian did not use illegal or unethical means or accept information obtained illegally or unethically concerning Mr Condon’s identity or the police files referred to in the article. For greater reassurance, could you please describe the legal means by which you obtained Mr Condon’s identity and the excerpt from the police files quoted in the article.
Thank you for your attention.
The Guardian reported back as follows.
A Guardian spokesperson said:
“I would like to make it absolutely clear that the Guardian did not use illegal or unethical means or accept information obtained obtained illegally or unethically concerning Mr Condon’s identity or the police files referred to in our article. To suggest otherwise would be totally untrue. We can also confirm the information did not come from the UEA or from Neil Wallis, either directly or indirectly.
The statement was obviously carefully worded with the sort of plausible deniability that we’re familiar with from the climate “community”. I replied as follows:
I appreciate your prompt response but your answer does not resolve the matter. We had asked you to show the legal means by which you acquired the information and you did not do so. I presume that you are refusing to provide this as opposed to this being an oversight in your response.
We also have a concern over your failure to exclude the police as the source of your information. If you are in a position in which you either can exclude them as a source and are prepared to do so, this would go some way towards re-assuring us. Otherwise, our concern that you obtained the information through use of information obtained illegally or unethically remains unresolved.
We draw your attention to yesterday’s article in the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/jul/21/phone-hacking-operation-motorman-files describing many incidents in which information was passed illegally to the media by the police (some involving payment, but, as I understand it, the passing of information can be illegal even without the payment of money.) We note that the Norfolk Constabulary is subject to the Data Protection Act and that their passing Jeff Id’s identity to you, if that is what happened, would not appear to be permitted under the circumstances at hand (http://www.norfolk.police.uk/aboutus/yourrighttoinformation/dataprotection/frequentlyaskedquestions.aspx).
In addition, if you did get the information from the police, you will understand our concern over Wallis’ potential indirect involvement, given that Wallis was, at the time, not only consulting for the University of East Anglia, but also consulting for the police and, as I understand, was particularly connected to John Yates, who was in charge of UK counter-terrorism operations (counter-terrorism officers were involved in the investigation) and to Andy Hayman, a former Chief Constable of the Norfolk Constabulary and also much in the news recently.
Accordingly, once again, I ask that you detail how you obtained the information through legal means as well as confirm that you did not obtain the information from police services (who, we believe, could not legally pass the information to you given the circumstances.)
Thanks, Steve Mc
The Guardian replied that they were “utterly bemused” by our concern and re-iterated that “nothing illegal or unethical” was done to obtain the information, again refusing to disclose how they got the information:
I have to say we’re utterly bemused by your questions over this report. To reiterate our very clear statement, nothing illegal or unethical was done to obtain the information.
Of course we can’t give you an account of how we obtained the information – we take protecting our sources very seriously.
If you still believe you have any evidence of wrongdoing, you should give it to the police and the information commissioner.
The Guardian’s repeated refusal to exclude counter-terrorism police as the source of Leigh’s information leaves obvious question marks. We know that the University of East Anglia retained a former News of the World operative with close connections to the police as an agent to strike back against their critics. It’s hardly implausible (though not proven) that police either connected to this operative (or otherwise) might have leaked personal information to the Guardian as part of the UEA’s campaign to strike back at critics. The Guardian purports to be “bemused” at the idea and is indifferent to the disclosure of Jeff Id’s personal information, presumably because, they regard themselves as being unlike News of the World because they are engaged in a noble and virtuous cause.
However, Jeff obviously has a different view. Jeff is not “bemused” by disclosure of personal information against his express wishes, particularly when, in his view, the disclosure of his personal information lacked any legitimate journalistic purpose and when there are reasonable grounds to suspect that personal information had been leaked to the Guardian by the police, that the police violated UK law in disclosing the personal information to the Guardian and that the Guardian knew that the police had violated UK law in giving the information to Leigh (if indeed the police were the source of the information, as it appears.) Nor has Jeff been shown that the police leak (if that is the source) was not connected to the University’s desire to strike back at critics, either via the University’s retention of former News of the World operative Wallis or otherwise. Jeff has written once again to the Guardian. However, as the Guardian observes, it is unlikely that the matter can be resolved without an investigation by the Information Commissioner and doubtless that’s where this file is going as well.