The former information commissioner suggested today that it was a good thing his office did not prosecute journalists for illegally buying private information.
Richard Thomas told the Leveson Inquiry into press standards that he feared newspapers would have fought the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
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He said he was advised that reporters alleged to have paid private investigators for personal data were well-prepared and like a “barrel of monkeys”.
The inquiry has heard that the Information Commissioner’s Office uncovered a “treasure trove” of evidence linking newspapers to the trade in personal information when it raided the home of private investigator Steve Whittamore in March 2003 as part of an inquiry called Operation Motorman.
Thomas told the hearing today: “Maybe this is with hindsight, but perhaps thank goodness we did not prosecute the journalists.
“The impact for the office would have been very, very demanding indeed.
“I don’t know when this was or at what point this was, but perhaps around about 2007, I can recall a conversation along the lines of somebody saying ‘Thank God we didn’t take the journalists to court, they would have gone all the way to Strasbourg’.”
Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, questioned why the Information Commissioner’s Office did not bring prosecutions against journalists who paid for criminal records or “family and friends” telephone numbers, which could only be obtained illegally.
Thomas replied: “I can see that the media would not like any of their journalists being prosecuted, and I suspect they would for example argue there is a public interest in being able to ensure freedom of expression.
“Now I don’t believe that, I don’t accept that. It’s one thing as to whether or not that would be successful, but one can anticipate that that sort of point would have been raised and would have bogged down the office for many years.”
Thomas, who was information commissioner from 2002 to 2009, said he expected his investigators to “get on with the job” and did not give them any instructions about whether to pursue newspapers.
“At no time throughout this situation did I think we were either going to be prosecuting journalists or not doing so,” he said.
‘Back off off the journalists’
Jay suggested that the failure to interview any journalists as part of Operation Motorman could only be put down to a policy decision or incompetence in the investigation team.
Thomas replied: “If you want to put it in those terms, I have to put it to the latter.
“But I am absolutely clear, because I wouldn’t have done any of the things I had done right through 2005, 2006, 2007 if I had thought at any time I or anybody else had said, ‘back off the journalists’.”
“I was told some time in October or November that it was going to be too expensive or too difficult to pursue the journalists. That’s when I went off to the PCC,” he said.
The inquiry heard that barrister Bernard Thorogood advised Thomas in January 2005 that police – who were investigating Whittamore and his associates for alleged corruption over the trade in criminal records, vehicle registration and telephone company data – had found it difficult to get information out of reporters.
“The journalists were interviewed and were found to be tricky, well-armed and well briefed – effectively a ‘barrel of monkeys’,” minutes from the meeting noted.
Whittamore was convicted of illegally accessing data and received a conditional discharge at London’s Blackfriars Crown Court in April 2005.
Thomas said illegally obtaining personal records could be more serious than phone hacking.
He stressed that his office took breaches of section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998, which covers the unlawful obtaining of personal information, “extremely seriously”.
In a witness statement he said: “A section 55 offence is often at least as serious as phone hacking, and may be even more serious.
“Interception of a telephone call or message is widely and rightly seen as highly intrusive.
“But a great deal more information can usually be obtained about individuals by stealing their electronic or written records (such as financial, health, tax or criminal records) than from a conversation or message.
“And their entire daily activities can be available if email accounts or social network sites are illicitly accessed.”