A tale of two scandals
In 2010 evidence emerged that the News of the World had been systematically hacking into the phones of a number of celebrities. By early 2011 it became clear that over 400 people had been the victims of illegal phone-hacking. Most of these were “celebrities” of various kinds but the list included politicians, a couple of trade union officials, and the families and relatives of murder victims such as Milly Dowler.
Following the outcry in the (non-Murdoch) press, and demands from some high profile victims such as Hugh Grant, it was clear that action had to be taken, especially after a number of journalists and executives on the paper were arrested and charged. The paper closed in July 2011 and the Government set up an inquiry. It began hearing evidence that November and reported a year later and almost all its recommendations were accepted. Meanwhile a number of the victims have received compensation from News International.
Let’s move on to another event that was unfolding at the same time. In 2009 the information Commissioners Office raided a firm called the Consulting Association which was operating a secret list of employees so that they could sell the information to companies. These employees were usually active trade unionists, safety representatives or environmental activists.
The raid followed a tip off two years earlier than the company had been keeping secret files illegally for over 16 years. Over 3,000 people were on the lists that were seized and 44 companies were known to have bought information about people applying for a job with them. That included contractors working on high profile projects such as Crossrail and the Olympic park. Many of those on the list were blacklisted from getting a job in the construction industry and had to endure years of unemployment or get out of the industry totally.
As a result of the raid the Chief Officer of the Consulting Association was fined £5,000 for breaking the Data Protection Act. His fine and legal fees were paid by Sir Robert McAlpine – one of the companies that used information from the Consulting Association. None of the 44 companies involved were prosecuted. The government has refused all calls for an enquiry saying there is no evidence that there is still a problem.
Now both these scandals involve the use and misuse of data obtained or kept illegally. In the first people found their private affairs printed on the front pages of newspapers. I can only imagine the anguish they must have felt to have confidences revealed like this. However for those who were blacklisted it was not just about their name or the invasion of their privacy. Many of those blacklisted were unable to work to feed themselves or their families for years just because they had been active in a trade union or had raised concerns about health and safety.
At the moment the Scottish Affairs Committee is hearing evidence about the blacklisting scandal and it makes frightening reading. It has heard from the Consulting Association’s Chief Officer who has openly admitted that people were put on the list because they raised safety concerns. He also confirmed that the information about these people was requested by the directors of some of the largest construction companies in the country. Yet these same companies continue to be given huge public sector contracts and tell us that “safety is their priority”.
So why has there been no Leveson-style inquiry into the blacklisting scandal? Why has there been no legislation passed outlawing the practice? It is simple really. The victims of the phone-hacking scandal were in the public eye. They were people who had access to the media and were (with a few notable exceptions such as the Dowlers) middle class. The bulk of them were well known names from the world of entertainment with a few politicians and police officers thrown in. The victims of the blacklisting scandal on the other hand were ordinary working class people. The press have shown no interest at all in telling their story. Steve Coogan and Wayne Rooney having their phone messages listened to sells papers. Steve Kelly, or Mick Abbott, who were unable to work for years because they were on the blacklist, don’t sell papers. They are not well-known names. Yet they had to put up with years of financial hardship and stress because they tried to help their fellow workers. The only people who have been fighting for justice for them are themselves, their unions and a few campaigners.
Recently however there has been a bit of interest. Last week Radio 4 ran an investigation about the scandal and the Government’s failure to Act. A number of MPs have joined the call for a public inquiry and the Scottish Affairs Committee will report its findings later this year. Meanwhile in Wales there are attempts to bring in new legislation against blacklisting.
You can listen to the Radio 4 report here.