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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