Daily Mail publisher Associated Newspapers claims that of the 1,218 requests for information it made to a private investigator there was no evidence to prove any of them were illegal.
Private investigator Steve Whittamore was given a two-year conditional discharge in 2005 after he was found guilty of obtaining and disclosing information under the Data Protection Act by the Met's Operation Motorman.
A subsequent report by the Information Commissioner found the majority of requests – both legal and illegal – were from journalists, with the Daily Mail topping the list with 952 entries from 85 journalists and the Mail on Sunday in third place with 266 requests from 33 journalists.
Addressing the Leveson Inquiry today Jonathan Caplan, counsel for Daily publisher Associated Newspapers, claimed that 'newspapers are by no means the worst offenders'on data crime and noted that no penalties had been brought against newspapers under the Data Protection Act.
'In our submission it is no way to be compared to the conduct of phone hacking,'he said. 'It is especially important to draw a distinction between phone-hacking, which is the illegal interception of private voicemails, and the kind of conduct which was the subject of the Information Commissioner's reports.'
Caplan argued that Whittamore was primarily hired by organisations to obtain addresses and telephone numbers 'most of which, not all of which, could legally have been obtained if the individual had had the time to research it".
Commenting on Associated's use of Whittamore, he told the inquiry: 'His assistance was required as far as Associated journalists were concerned to help trace people quickly, usually to verify facts or to comment on stories that were written or in progress prior to publication.
'It should also be stressed that Mr Whittamore did not work simply for newspapers, he was hired by organisations such as banks, local authorities and firms of solicitors who were similarly seeking to locate people.
'While Mr Whittamore was prosecuted no journalist has ever been charged because there simply is no evidence they ever asked Mr Whittamore to do anything illegal, or they knew he was, or might, be illegally accessing databases.
'Another key difference between phone-hacking and the data provision provided by Mr Whittamore was that journalists using him were not engaged in fishing expeditions."
Caplan said that when the Information Commissioner's report 'What price privacy now?' was published in December 2006, Associated Newspaper's editor-in-chief Paul Dacre banned the use of all inquiry agents.
'It was made quite clear that Associated would not pay for them and that compliance with the Data Protection Act was to become, and is, a term in journalists' contracts with my client,'added Caplan.