Richard Thomas denies ICO policy of not investigating journalists

The former Information Commissioner has denied that there was a policy of not investigating journalists during Operation Motorman.

Testifying at the Leveson Inquiry, Richard Thomas CBE said “there was no policy from the outset that we were not going to go against the press.”

He added he did not want to “let the press off the hook” but was advised by the ICO’s legal team that the financial aspect of prosecuting journalists over the use of private investigators to obtain personal data was too great.

The ICO’s counsel’s written advice, shown to the Inquiry on Monday, stated that there was sufficient evidence to prosecute journalists. Yet both he and the Office’s in-house lawyer told Thomas that journalists confronted would be well-briefed and well-armed, “like a barrel of monkeys”.

Thomas also denied any recollection of Motorman’s lead investigator Alec Owens suggesting journalists should be investigated, or of former deputy Francis Aldhouse saying the press were “too big” to take on.

On Monday Aldhouse himself denied saying this, negating Owens’s testimony.

Thomas said he was not involved in any discussion of investigating journalists, adding he was unaware of any decision that anyone “actively considering” prosecuting journalists.

His focus, he said, was the prosecution of private investigators, who he called “the middlemen who were organising the illegal trade”.

After a series of grilling questions from Robert Jay QC, counsel to the Inquiry, Thomas said he took full responsibility for everything that happened, while adding that it was hard to have details of what takes place in a large organisation.

He repeated that he was pleased no journalists were prosecuted, noting that would be “very demanding indeed” on the ICO. Journalists confronted would have “gone straight to Strasbourg”, he said, had they raised issues of freedom of expression.

Thomas told the Inquiry that “prosecution is not the only way to deal with a particular problem”, adding that the 2004 prosecution of private investigator Steve Whittamore produced a “perverse outcome” in his conditional discharge.

In a letter to the former chairman of the PCC, Christopher Meyer, Thomas had also written that the body could provide “more satisfactory outcomes than legal proceedings” in taking on the issue.

Discussing the outcomes of Motorman and its findings, Thomas said he could not categorically say all the journalists identified had committed offences. “They were driving the market,” he said.

When pressed by Jay, Thomas admitted that he could not think of a public interest defence for obtaining the contact numbers of friends or family through a private investigator. He added it would indicate a breach of section 55 of the Data Protection Act “at some stage”.

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