PCC "should have done more", ex-Information Commissioner tells Inquiry

The former Information Commissioner told the Leveson Inquiry he was disappointed by the Press Complaints Commission’s lax response to allegations of illegal activities among the British press.

Richard Thomas said he wanted “loud, strident condemnation” from the regulator, having written to them in November 2003 after being advised by the ICO’s legal team that prosecuting journalists over the use of private investigators would be too costly. Yet he was told by PCC Chairman Sir Christopher Meyer that the regulator’s role was not to enforce the law. Thomas said he “just did not buy that line”, that the PCC could not intervene because the use of private investigators by the press was a criminal matter.

“I thought their response was less strident [than I expected],” Thomas said. “I think they could have and should have done more.”

He added that attempts to develop a “guidance note” with the PCC ground to a halt in April 2004.

Thomas reflected that, “with hindsight, I think I would’ve been more aggressive and assertive” with the PCC.

He noted his surprise and outrage at the PCC’s assertion that the ICO’s report on Motorman’s findings had “come out of the blue”, given that Thomas and PCC representatives had had two meetings about its contents.

Thomas described the data breaches exposed by Operation Motorman as “pernicious”, and felt deterrents would prevent further wrongdoing. In a “breakthrough” government consultation paper issued in July 2006, Thomas proposed two-year prison terms for those found guilty of trading in illegal data.

He admitted he was not expecting a “powerful campaign” of hostility from the tabloids. “It left me with the message that we were challenging something that went to the heart of tabloid activity,” he said. “As somebody said to me ‘you do realise you are challenging their business model’.”

Thomas reiterated his agenda “was not to send journalists to prison”, but to correct bad behaviour.

The Inquiry continues on Monday, with evidence from former News International staff.

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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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This morning at the Leveson Inquiry – 05/12/11

The former Deputy Information Commissioner told the Leveson Inquiry today that he did not recollect telling an investigator in Operation Motorman that the press were too big to take on.

Francis Aldhouse said this was not his view and he did “not fear the media”.

In his testimony to the Inquiry last week, former investigator Alec Owens claimed that, when he had alerted Aldhouse to the documents seized from private investigator Steve Whittamore’s home that revealed the extent of the press using private investigators, Aldhouse had told him the press were too big for the ICO to take on.

Aldhouse refuted the claims, telling the Inquiry that he did not recollect the meeting Owens, or hold the view that the media were too powerful. He said he had been happy to negotiate with the press in the past.

He added that he believed there had been a case for involving newspapers and journalists further in the Operation. He said he was “disappointed, but not surprised” to have apparently not been
consulted by his colleagues on the involvement of journalists.

He said had he been asked at the time, his view would have been that “we really ought to find a way to pursue this.”

Pressed by the Inquiry, Aldhouse said he did not recall any discussions regarding the way forward of the Operation, which he deemed one of the ICO’s “largest”. He said decisions made not to prosecute the press were done so by the Information Commissioner himself, adding that discussions he had with him were only “casual”.

The Inquiry was also shown potentially damning evidence given to the ICO by a senior lawyer in 2003. The counsel’s advice read that “many if not all of the journalists involved have committed offences”, and went on to say that the “overwhelming inference is that several editors must have been well aware of what their staff were up to and therefore party to it.”

The counsel’s advice also prioritised enforcement over the prosecution of journalists, to give a chance for the Press Complaints Commission to “put its house in order”.

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Newspapers "too big" to take on, Leveson Inquiry told

A former police officer told the Leveson Inquiry today that his bosses at the Information Commissioner’s Office warned him the press was “too big” to take on over private investigators.

Alec Owens, who was a senior investigator in Operation Motorman, an ICO-led investigation into allegations of data protection offences by the British media, revealed he had found notebooks in private investigator Steve Whittamore’s home with 17,500 entries identifying each reporter and newspaper who had commissioned a task. The “Pandora’s box” of information also included invoices to and payments from newspapers, criminal record checks, car registration checks and ex-directory telephone numbers.

Owens said, “we could identify the newspaper, the journalist, Whittamore, who he used, the blaggers, the corrupt people, and we had a paper chain right the way up and down.”

However, a “shocked” Francis Aldhouse, the then deputy information commissioner, told Owens the press were “too big” to take on.

Owens said that no journalists had been questioned or charged in Operation Motorman, adding, “I wish we had the opportunity to look at all this.” He contended that the evidence found was “strong enough to stand on its own” to prosecute journalists, noting that some were using Whittamore 300 or 400 times.

Owens also revealed that the mobile phone number of abducted schoolgirl Milly Dowler and her family’s ex-directory telephone number were featured in Whittamore’s notebooks, as well as the names of other victims of phone hacking at the News of the World.

Operation Motorman, carried out in 2003, investigated the use of a private investigators by the media to obtain personal information. In 2004, Whittamore was arrested and given a conditional discharge. In September of this year, Owens gave a disk of his files on the operation to the Independent newspaper, revealing previously unpublished details of the scale of the press use of private investigators. Just weeks before coming to the Inquiry, Owens’s home was raided under a warrant by Cheshire police, in an operation he described as a “fishing trip.”

Earlier in the day, former Number 10 director of communications Alastair Campbell called for media reform, labelling the British press “putrid”.

In his three-hour testimony, Campbell described a “culture of negativity”, with the Daily Mail being the most “relentless” for its crime and health scares. He said parents whose children have had measles should blame negative coverage over the MMR vaccine, and cited social workers as only ever being defined negatively in the tabloids, which he said impacted on recruitment, morale and the services they provide. He said the press’s treatment of the Dowlers and McCanns was “not atypical” but rather something that happened to anyone who became a “news commodity”.

He went on to say the paper was “utterly the product of one person”, and questioned editor Paul Dacre’s assertion that he had never published a story based on illegal information. Campbell argued that editors may genuinely not know “that the law is being broken left, right and centre”.

Of journalists, he said, “they are the spin doctors. They are the ones deciding what the line is…The line then gets reported as public opinion.”

While stopping short of accusing the Mail of phone hacking, Campbell said he was “unprepared” to say the paper had “never done anything untoward”.

He said that during his time at Downing Street he was “very concerned” about how many stories about Cherie Blair and her life coach Carole Caplin were getting out to different parts of the press. While admitting he had no evidence of hacking, Campbell said in his witness statement that it was “at least possible” that this is how stories were revealed.

Campbell claimed that those who argued loudest for freedom of the press were “terrified” of regulation, but that the majority of journalists had nothing to fear. Those who were terrified, he said, were scared of losing “the ability to do this sort of journalism they have been doing over the last decade or so.”

He agreed with Guardian journalist Nick Davies that a public interest advisory body should be introduced to help guide reporters. He also argued in favour of a new regulatory body that would not have current media representatives sitting on it. He advocated a US-style system of fact-checking on newspapers as well as league tables to see which papers adhered to the code of practice.

Also speaking today was Mark Lewis, a solicitor for victims of phone hacking. He described the surveillance carried out on him and his family by News of the World private investigators as “truly horrific.” In an impassioned testimony, he went on to say that News International sought to “destroy” his life and “very nearly succeeded”.

Lewis also refuted claims in a dossier compiled by NI lawyers that he had leaked information to the Guardian, accusing solicitor Julian Pike and News of the World lawyer Tom Crone of “complete arrogance and idiocy”.

The hearing continues on Monday, when we will hear from Francis Aldhouse, the former ICO investigator on Operation Motorman, solicitor Charlotte Harris and author Peter Burden.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson.