Leveson Inquiry: Journalists 'would have fought us'
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.
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.
Mr 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.
Mr 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."
Mr 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.
Mr 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.
Mr 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'."
Mr Thomas alerted the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in November 2003 to the involvement of reporters in the illicit trade in private data, the inquiry heard.
"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 Mr 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.
Mr 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."
Mr Thomas agreed that Mr Thorogood advised that the Information Commissioner's Office appeared to have a "good case" against the journalists identified in Operation Motorman.
But he stressed: "We don't prosecute every case. We had a phrase in the office - 'We have to be selective to be effective'.
"And no doubt, having regard to the very limited resources, the advice was it's not wise to go ahead with this case when we can have the impact against the investigators.
"We'd hope to get a good result there, and we can use this material to put a stop to these practices in the Press by other means."
Mr Thomas wrote to then-PCC chairman Sir Christopher Meyer on November 4 2003 to highlight his concerns that large numbers of journalists were illegally buying private data.
This was followed by a meeting on November 27 at which the former information commissioner called on the PCC to denounce the practice and revise its code of conduct.
Mr Thomas said he was "somewhat disappointed" by the PCC's response, adding: "There was not the sort of loud condemnation that I had originally expected.
"Having said that, something did have an effect upon the media as far as I can see."
Mr Thomas published two reports in 2006, entitled What Price Privacy? and What Price Privacy Now?, which highlighted the scale of the trade in confidential personal records.
Sir Christopher wrote to him after the first report, saying it was an "interesting read" but had "come rather out of the blue" for the PCC, the hearing was told.
The former information commissioner told the inquiry he found these comments "a fairly strong understatement" and "surprising" given his earlier contact with the PCC chairman.
Mr Thomas stressed that the information obtained by journalists which was exposed by Operation Motorman "did not come near" being justified by the public interest.
"I haven't seen a whiff of public interest. It was tittle-tattle, it was fishing. Maybe one or two example, but they would be exceptional," he told the inquiry.
"The sort of scale of the activity that we saw, I would almost describe it as industrial, engaging or buying information from private investigators, which at least must be a risk of coming near to criminality."
Mr Thomas said it appeared that newspapers largely stopped buying personal data after 2006.
"By the time I retired in 2009, my impression was that this was being taken a great deal more seriously across the Press, and I welcome that," he said.
"Whether that is sufficient to eliminate the practice forever, I can't tell you."
Prime Minister David Cameron set up the Leveson Inquiry in July in response to revelations that the News of the World commissioned a private detective to hack murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's phone after she disappeared in 2002.
The first part of the inquiry, sitting at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, is looking at the culture, practices and ethics of the Press in general and is due to produce a report by next September.
The second part, examining the extent of unlawful activities by journalists, will not begin until detectives have completed their investigation into alleged phone hacking and corrupt payments to police, and any prosecutions have been concluded.
The inquiry will hear next week from former News of the World executives and journalists, including editor Colin Myler, executive editor Neil Wallis, chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck, head of legal Tom Crone and investigations editor Mazher Mahmood.
Private detective Derek Webb, who has claimed he was hired by the News of the World to carry out surveillance on prominent figures including Princes William and Harry, former attorney general Lord Goldsmith and the parents of Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe, will also give evidence.
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