The former head of the organisation responsible for data protection was accused yesterday of avoiding the prosecution of hundreds of journalists involved in illegally paying private investigators for personal information by putting the matter "on ice if not in perma-frost".
Robert Jay QC, counsel to the Leveson Inquiry, told the former Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, that by targeting private investigators in a trade that netted the firm at the centre of the commission's investigation a potential £500,000, he missed the "spider's web" of journalists.
Despite a report published by the Information Commissioner's Office in 2006, which detailed thousands of data transactions and 305 different journalists involved in illegally using the services of a private investigator, Steve Whittamore, to obtain personal information and numbers, no journalist has been prosecuted.
Mr Jay repeatedly asked the former commissioner if the decision to avoid chasing the press was either a "policy decision" or basic "incompetence". Mr Thomas denied backing off from prosecuting journalists during Operation Motorman in 2003 – the probe which uncovered almost industry-wide use of Whittamore's firm.
An ICO investigation found Whittamore was the national press's go-to man for private numbers, ex-directory details, vehicle registrations and the numbers of friends and family' from confidential telephone lists.
Though Mr Thomas eventually agreed it was "theoretical, but not a dead possibility" that journalists may have been prosecuted following a raid on Whittamore's Hampshire offices, Mr Jay told the inquiry it was "as dead as it could possibly be".
Having blamed cost and logistics for not going after reporters and editors, Mr Thomas later said he was "glad he had not prosecuted journalists" because the impact on his office would have been "huge".