Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has revealed that hundreds of journalists may have illegally bought private information and named a list of newspapers and magazines using one particular information agency.
The Daily Mail, which is at the top of Thomas' list, has condemned the exercise as "uttlerly meaningless" and pointed out that it uses search agencies to find legitimate information such as births, marriages and deaths.
In a report to Parliament - entitled What Price Privacy Now? - Thomas also defended proposals to jail journalists for up to two years who illegally buy and sell information.
He said: "Freedom of speech is not freedom to break the law by bribery or
deception where there is no public interest justification.
difficult to imagine a prosecution - let alone a conviction of any
journalist able to show that he or she was pursuing a story to prevent
or detect crime, to expose public impropriety, or was otherwise acting
in the public interest.
"There is already prospect of a criminal conviction and an unlimited
fine facing those who fish for tittle-tattle about public and private
figures or who otherwise cannot justify their activities, but these
deterrents clearly have not worked.
"It must be stressed that the proposals do not call for the creation of
a new offence and will not make criminal any activity by the press or
other media that is not already criminal.
"A further safeguard is that only the Commissioner or the Director of
Public Prosecutions may bring a prosecution."
He added: "There is still further work to be done to reduce the
demand for illegally obtained confidential information. This work will
"We will continue to track down and prosecute offenders. We will
continue to press the Government to introduce the option of a prison
sentence and see this progress report as supporting that goal. We will
continue to raise awareness and we will encourage and work with any
organisation that wants to raise standards or produce clear guidance on
data protection obligations.
"In particular we will be work closely with the media on the development
of relevant guidance and standards for journalists."
Thomas has also published a league table revealing which media organisations had used the services of one particular inquiry agency to buy data.
The Daily Mail is top of the table - with 58 of its journalists using the agency and making 952 seperate transactions.
The list was compiled after investigatons from the Information
Commissioner's Office in Operation Motorman in 2002 which
discovered numerous invoices addressed to newspapers and magazines which
detailed prices for providing the journalists with personal information.
The raid led to 305 journalists being identified as having been the
recipients of a wide range of information.
The Commissioner released the information following a request
under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Daily Mail's publisher said in a statement: "Associated Newspapers,
in common with all newspapers and broadcasters - and many other
organisations, including lawyers - use search agencies to obtain
information entirely legitimately from a range of public sources
including company records, electoral rolls, registers of births,
marriages and deaths, and the Land Registry.
"In addition, the law specifically makes provision for journalists
making inquiries in the public interest.
"The Information Commissioner's data appears to come from an inquiry
into the activities of one particular agency four years ago which
resulted in four people, not journalists, receiving conditional
"It is worth stressing that as the 'league table' is a snapshot based on
the activities of just one agency its figures are utterly meaningless.
"Since the Information Commissioner first raised his concerns Associated
Newspapers has repeatedly stressed to all its journalists that they must
observe the law when seeking information."
Here is the table listing the title followed by number of pieces of data paid for and the the number of journalists involved.
Daily Mail: 952; 58
Sunday People: 802; 50.
Daily Mirror: 681; 45.
Mail on Sunday: 266; 33.
News of the World: 182; 19.
Sunday Mirror: 143; 25.
Best Magazine: 134; 20.
Evening Standard: 130 ; 1.
The Observer: 103; 4
Daily Sport : 62; 4.
Sunday Times: 52; 7.
The People: 37; 19.
Daily Express : 36; 7.
(Daily Mail): 30; 4.
Sunday Express: 29 ; 8.
The Sun: 24; 4.
Closer Magazine: 22; 5.
Sunday Sport:15; 1.
Night and Day
(Mail on Sunday): 9; 2.
Sunday Business News: 8; 1.
Daily Record: 7; 2.
Saturday (Express) : 7; 1.
Sunday Mirror Magazine: 6; 1.
Real Magazine: 4 ; 1.
Woman's Own: 4; 2.
Daily Mirror Magazine: 3; 2
Mail in Ireland: 3, 1.
Daily Star: 2; 4.
Marie Claire: 2; 1.
Personal Magazine: 1; 1.