Leveson Inquiry: Ex-data watchdog rebukes politicians

The former Labour government gave in to pressure from the press, ex-Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has told the Leveson Inquiry.

He also criticised former prime minister Gordon Brown and his successor for failing to tackle data theft.

Mr Thomas said he had met Mr Brown but his government scrapped a bill to toughen up the Data Protection Act.

Mr Thomas said the current government had also failed to activate an order introducing tougher penalties.

Mr Thomas, who left his post in 2009, said his successor had been pressing the government to activate this order, but the latest reason given for delaying it was that the government was waiting for the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry.

At one point Robert Jay QC, counsel for the inquiry, asked: "Mr Dacre (Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail) had the ear of Mr Brown?"

"People at the head of newspapers were very influential with politicians," he replied.

Mr Thomas said he was once warned by someone that the newspaper industry was angered by his attempts to stop journalists and private investigators from stealing data about celebrities and other individuals.

"He said, 'You do realise you are challenging their whole business model?'," said Mr Thomas, appearing at the Royal Courts of Justice on Friday.

Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry is looking at the "culture, practices and ethics of the media", and whether self-regulation works.

Data theft

Mr Thomas said private investigators were still carrying out questionable inquiries on behalf of the press.

He referred to a raid on one private eye's office: "The fax machine burst into life and said, 'Please find out if this lady has got cancer.'

"Another message sent to an investigator to go and look at an abortion clinic to find out if a named person had an abortion."

Mr Thomas admitted he himself had made mistakes.

He said: "With hindsight, I think I would've been more aggressive and assertive with the PCC (Press Complaints Commission) and with the code at the outset."

Earlier Mr Thomas said data theft was potentially more damaging than phone hacking.

He said a "great deal more information" could generally be obtained by stealing private data than from accessing phone messages.

He said his office had taken the unlawful obtaining of personal information "extremely seriously".

Mr Thomas said few of the reporters involved were carrying out "genuine investigative journalism" and he described it as "celebrity tittle-tattle".

Image caption Richard Thomas was the information commissioner until 2009

Mr Thomas, who was head of the Operation Motorman investigation into private detectives and newspapers, has given six witness statements to the inquiry.

'Very concerned'

Mr Thomas said the powers of the information commissioner were "really quite severely circumscribed" when it came to dealing with the press.

He said there were exemptions in the Data Protection Act protecting the use of information for journalism.

Mr Jay asked Mr Thomas whether obtaining data through an "agent" was an offence.

Mr Thomas replied: "I don't recall having that point ever discussed or analysed inside the office.

"My understanding of the conventional wisdom inside the office is that 'obtain' meant more than 'receive'. Primarily, the prosecutions we brought were when people sought out and obtained the data."

Mr Thomas said "fishing exercises" would not qualify for the public interest defence of journalism.

"Anybody who was intending to rely upon that defence ought to be clear about why they were obtaining information unlawfully, what would be their defence in public interest terms?

"Anything that looked like it was a fishing exercise would have been difficult to justify prima facie in public interest terms," he said.

Mr Thomas said his office was "very concerned indeed about the security of personal data held in many many databases in the public sector, private sector and elsewhere".

"We were very sensitive about the risks of that getting into the wrong hands, information held in databases, tax, banking records, social security records, your shopping details, education records, right across the spectrum, we were very concerned indeed," he said.

Investigators targeted

Mr Thomas said that in 2003, at the time of the Operation Motorman probe, he was not aware that the ICO gave any active consideration to prosecuting journalists.

The main focus was the private investigators - "middle men" whom he likened to "drug dealers".

He was asked if he recalled a meeting at which former ICO deputy Francis Aldhouse told former ICO lead investigator Alec Owens that the press were too big to take on.

Mr Thomas replied: "I have no recollection at all of him or anyone else using that sort of language."

He said he was aware that newspapers' involvement in the illegal trade of data was very serious.

Mr Thomas said of the legal advice that was given to him: "It was the sheer costs and logistical challenge of going against the press that meant we should go towards the investigators. There was no policy from the outset that [we] weren't going to go against the press."

The issue was raised with the PCC instead.

Mr Thomas said he felt his investigation team had not been large enough and was under-resourced.

'Big stick'

Rhodri Davies QC, for News International, asked Mr Thomas about an incident in 2002 when a meeting with the editor of the Sunday Times, John Witherow, was arranged following complaints from Labour peer Lord Levy and Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft.

Mr Davies put it to Mr Thomas this was the only occasion when "the big stick" was wielded.

He suggested this was "because your office was under pressure from too powerful and well-connected people to do so".

Mr Thomas said he had no recollection of it at all and he pointed out it was only two weeks into his term as information commissioner.

Later Mr Davies asked: "In the case of the state, the police, they have a huge panoply of powers to obtain information.

"The journalist doesn't have any powers. Do you think that potentially criminalising the obtaining of an address or where they might live is going too far?"

Mr Thomas was adamant people were entitled to keep their telephone numbers private if they wished and added: "Just because a journalist wants to talk to somebody, they should be entitled to break that privacy? I don't agree."

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