Info chief in new plea to jail blagging journalists

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham today reiterated his predecessor’s plea that jail sentences should be brought in for journalists and others who illegally buy and sell private information.

In April 2008, the government shelved the provision in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that would have seen those dealing in private information jailed for up to two years – but kept the possibility that it could be activated at a later date.

Today Graham told MPs on the culture, media and sport select committee: “This trade is still going on. The issue is whether parliament will activate the custodial sentences in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act.”

Graham revealed that he made contact with the Ministry of Justice last night to let them know that he would be urging parliament to enact the jail sentences provision. And he said it was his understanding that tougher penalties could be activated by ministerial order, without new legislation.

Graham testified that investigators who buy and sell people’s private information which has been obtained illegally, or blagged, did not take the current financial penalties seriously.

However, he said that the ICO has seen no new evidence that journalists were breaching data protection rules by illegally obtaining information.

He said: “Everyone is on their best behaviour because of the [Clive] Goodman jailing.”

Earlier this week The Guardian published new details from the Information Commissioner’s Operation Motorman inquiry into the activities of private investigator Steve Whittamore which was published in December 2006. It found that 305 journalists from nearly every UK national newspaper had used Whittamore to buy information which was, in some cases, illegally obtained.

The information given to journalists included ex-directory telephone numbers, home addresses and “friends and family” telephone numbers. The Guardian’s new information included revealing a number of the people targeted by Whittamore.

MPs today asked Graham why the ICO did not prosecute any of the journalists involved – only Whittamore himself – and why it has not published full details of all the journalists who bought information from Whittamore.

Graham, who is a former journalist himself, said: “There are 17,000 invoices or purchase orders for people who the press were interested in. The press would have the defence under the Data Protection Act that they were pursuing a story in the public interest.

“We had to decide whether to throw all the resources of our organisation behind this investigation. The decision was taken that we were going to approach this by trying to attack the unlawful dealing in personal information at source.”

When asked why the ICO did not prosecute any of the journalists identified in Operation Motorman, ICO investigations manager David Clancy said: “If we were to investigate one journalist we would have had to investigate all of them and prove that the information was illegally obtained. An ex-directory phone number, for instance, may have been obtained legally.”

Committee member Paul Farelly MP revealed that former minister Peter Kilfoyle was “incandescent with rage that the Information Commissioner had not told him that in his case the Daily Mail used the DVLA illegally to get his constituency home address for whatever reason from his licence number plates. He was angry that he had to learn these details from a Guardian journalist over the telephone.”

When asked why the ICO had not published all the details of the Operation Motorman investigation he said: “It’s personal information under the Data Protection Act – I would be committing a criminal offence to publish that information without lawful authority.”

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