PART 4: Byline investigates the Daily Mail: The Story Paul Dacre Tried to Suppress
A TOP Daily Mail executive, whose office attacked Byline's claims about his paper’s six figure payments to a private investigator convicted of fraudulently obtaining private data, is today himself drawn into the scandal.
Two weeks ago, the Daily Mail Managing Editor’s office - run by Alex Bannister - wrote to Byline in an apparent attempt to shut down our probe into payments made by the newspaper to Steve Whittamore, which continued long after the PI had been convicted of illegal “blagging” for the Press.
The investigation into Whittamore is the now well-known ‘Operation Motorman’ - the case that led to his conviction in 2005.
We can exclusively reveal that Alex Bannister’s own name appears on the private investigator’s secret list of client contacts.
A lawyer for the Daily Mail has told Byline that Bannister does not know why his name is at the top of the sheet ‘unless that list is in alphabetical order’.
However, Bannister - the third most powerful man in the Mail’s Derry Street operation - has also got a more serious reason to rebut our exclusive findings.
We can tell how he signed-off more than £50,000 in fees to Whittamore when it was already widely known - and newspapers had been repeatedly warned by the authorities - that much of the information he supplied to newspapers was gathered illegally.
The Story The Mail Tried To Stop
In his reply to Byline about an earlier story, Bannister’s office claimed that Daily Mail executives had given 'extensive and detailed written and verbal evidence on Whittamore to the Leveson Inquiry five years ago'.
However, there is no mention of Alex Bannister’s role in authorising payments to Whittamore, or in communicating with him, in any of the publicly available testimony given to the 2012 hearing into press ethics.
And now it is trying to gag Byline by threatening to sue for libel.
When our investigators contacted the Daily Mail and informed its editors that Byline was going to name Bannister, the paper's lawyers sent a strongly-worded Letter Before Action.
However, our reporters have defied Paul Dacre in pursuit of the truth by rebutting claims made by his high-powered solicitors.
We have also launched a fighting fund (on the right column of this page) to which readers can donate, so that we can carry on our investigation into allegations of criminality at Britain’s favourite middle-market paper.
Bannister features prominently in Whittamore’s personal directory of journalists, some of whom unlawfully bought private telephone data of members of the public.
His name is top of the list of Associated News staff in the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday contacts’ section of the directory.
Thirty Nine Mail Employees Listed
Bannister joined the Daily Mail in November 2005, only a few months after Whittamore’s widely reported conviction.
Prior to joining the Mail, Bannister was Managing Editor of the Express Group, which was also a prolific user of Whittamore’s services, both prior to and after his arrest and conviction.
Many of the 39 Northcliffe House employees, who appear on the list, were involved in buying information off Whittamore.
Some were involved in the industrial-scale purchase of private bills and ex-directory numbers from the professional “blagger”, though several on the list may have innocent explanations.
One journalist on the list denied tasking Whittamore at all during his tenure at Associated Newspapers.
Whittamore prevented a back-up version of his contact list from being seized by officers of the Information Commissioner during their raid on his premises on March 8th 2003.
What was a potentially lucrative resource was concealed by the PI's wife Georgina Whittamore.
She hid the contact list from Information Commissioner's Officer Alec Owens during the search by stuffing the sheaf of papers down her pants.
Once the raiding party, which consisted of four ICO investigators along with their police escorts, had left Whittamore’s home-based office in New Milton, Hampshire, his wife retrieved the contact list and handed it back to Whittamore.
It was this list, which subsequently updated, that has been seen by Byline.
The Blagging Resumes
After the 2003 raid, the Whittamore's company, JJ Services - a nationwide network of under-the-counter professional blaggers - was then free to resume trading with the Daily Mail almost immediately.
Crucially, they still had the valuable list of previous journalist clients at the Daily Mail and General Trust, which had spent £300,000 with their firm in just the three years before the raid.
The Whittamores continued to sell unlawfully “blagged” ex-directory phone numbers, and names and addresses obtained by “phone number reversals”.
Other services on offer included provision of confidential lists of “Friends and Family” numbers of targets, phone bill analysis, involving frequently dialed numbers and timings of specific calls. The Daily Mail made extensive use of all of these services.
Remarkably, even after the ICO raid and Whittamore’s subsequent conviction, his trade with the Daily Mail carried on in roughly the same volume as before.
Our reporters have also found out that Bannister actually met Whittamore in-person near the Daily Mail’s Kensington HQ.
Whittamore's email address was BLAG2049
The Daily Mail’s lawyer has since confirmed to Byline Investigations that the meeting took place in the months following his arrival at the Daily Mail in November 2005.
Bannister Meets Whittamore
The lawyer for the Daily Mail – which is owned by Associated News - said the purpose was to discuss with Whittamore a cheaper price for his services.
Whittamore recalls going for lunch in 2005 or 2006 with Bannister “in an attempt to drum-up trade”. Whittamore told Byline: ‘Bannister seemed more of a bean-counter than a journalist. He was more like an accountant.’
Bannister’s details were likely to have been added to the top of Whittamore’s Daily Mail contacts’ sheet when the document was updated in late 2005.
There is no suggestion that Bannister himself ever commissioned Whittamore to do anything illegal. But there is evidence that he authorised large amounts of money to be paid to Whittamore, for what appear to have been illegal activities carried out for the Daily Mail.
Bannister oversaw the payment of at least £53,756.35 worth of fees by the Daily Mail to the convicted PI between November 2005 and November 2006, and more in 2007.
A photograph of 14 Daily Mail payment slips to Whittamore is below.
Byline does not know if Bannister’s office also authorised similar transactions involving the Daily Mail’s sister papers, the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard - which was then owned by Associated.
The contacts' sheet has a direct landline to the Managing Editor’s office, his mobile number, his work email and his office fax.
The Information Commissioner's Warning
Both the Mail and the Express – Bannister’s former employer - were warned by the Information Commissioner about Whittamore.
From as early as 2003, all newspapers were told via the Press Complaints Commission (on which Daily Mail Editor Paul Dacre served), that the data spy had been acting unlawfully on the instruction of newspapers.
Even so, Bannister authorised payments of thousands of pounds every month for Whittamore’s unlawful activities.
Whittamore was obtaining the data by using expert conmen to illegally deceive workers at British Telecom and mobile phone companies into giving up sensitive data held on their computers.
It is not suggested that Bannister knew the methods being employed by Whittamore but observers say that he must have known about Whittamore’s conviction.
Critics claim that Bannister was certainly aware of the PCC’s warnings because he was responsible for passing on those advices to journalists working for Associated Newspapers. It took the company until two years after his conviction before it stopped using Whittamore’s services.
Byline put a list of eight questions to Alex Bannister, the Daily Mail and its lawyers, RPC. These went unanswered. However, the lawyer did make the following written comment about Alex Bannister:
‘As Managing Editor, Mr Bannister is not involved in the day-to- day editorial content of the newspaper but, in the months following his arrival, did meet with a variety of contributors and suppliers – including on one occasion Mr Whittamore - in the course of his responsibility to reduce editorial costs.
‘As we have said, he has never instructed or commissioned Mr Whittamore to do anything and has no idea why he should be at the top of his contact list unless that list is in alphabetical order.
‘Mr Whittamore gave repeated assurances in 2006 and 2007 that he was an Enquiry Agent who obtained information only via legitimate means and whilst acting fully within the law.
‘In any event, in April 2007 the use of such agents was banned at ANL with immediate effect.’
Mr. Whittamore said he could not remember receiving any correspondence from the Daily Mail about assurances. He did not personally give evidence to Leveson.
But in a schedule to the witness statement of Mail Editor Paul Dacre, the Inquiry was told that after the ICO’s report ‘What Price Privacy?’ was published in May 2006, Bannister wrote to all department heads at The Daily Mail urging them to abide by the Data Protection Act.
Critics say this demonstrates clearly that he knew all about what the authorities had said about private investigators’ unlawful methods and about Whittamore in particular.
The schedule said: 'On 11 July 2006 Alex Bannister, Group Managing Editor, sent a letter to all heads of department at the Daily Mail which impressed upon them that it is "absolutely essential that we abide by the DPA" and that it is the responsibility of the department heads that where information is sourced from third parties, such enquiries are made by reputable companies and individuals operating within the law.’
But Byline’s exclusive investigation reveals that whilst he was writing these warning letters to staff, and for many months afterwards, Bannister’s office was busy authorising fees to a private investigator whose company was far from reputable and who was operating outside the law.
Part 5 of our Mail Blagging Scandal Coming Soon