By a Newsnet reporter
The Leveson inquiry has been told that the authority in charge of pursuing data protection breaches refused to act despite well known newspapers being suspected of breaking the law, because they were “too big”.
Alec Owens, an ex-senior investigating officer for the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), has revealed that in 2003 the former deputy head of the ICO refused to pursue newspapers despite evidence suggesting they had illegally purchased confidential information.
Mr Owens was the lead investigator for the ICO when it conducted Operation Motorman – an investigation into allegations of possible breaches of the Data Protection Act by the UK press.
The investigation uncovered evidence of data breaches involving journalists working for newspapers right across the spectrum, and not just News International.
Motorman uncovered evidence of over seventeen thousand requests made by journalists to private investigator Steve Whittamore; many of the requests would have required breaking the law.
Mr Owens explained how, despite having obtained strong evidence of illegality, and urging his superiors to take action, they refused. Instead Whittamore, who refused to implicate the journalists, admitted his own involvement and was convicted.
According to Mr Owens, the Operation Motorman investigation uncovered documentary evidence showing a clear paper trail all the way and a possibility of many criminal convictions.
He 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, when he presented the evidence to Richard Thomas, the head of the ICO merely thanked him. The deputy head Francis Aldhouse, said Mr Owen, looked horrified and said: “We can’t take the press on, they’re too big for us.”
Mr Owens claims he was ordered to keep away from, and not to question, any journalists at all.
In November 2006, the then Labour government were eventually presented with the findings of the Operation Motorman report that catalogued over 3000 breaches of data protection laws. However despite the tough recommendations in the report, no action was taken by Prime Minister Tony Blair, nor by Gordon Brown’s administration which took over a few months later in June 2007.
In 2006 Sir Richard Thomas wrote in his annual report to the Westminster Parliament:
“Much more illegal activity lies hidden under the surface. Investigations by the Information Commissioner’s Office and the police have uncovered evidence of a widespread and organised undercover market in confidential personal information. Such evidence formed the core of the report, detailing how the unlawful trade in personal information operates: who the buyers are, what information they are seeking, how that information is obtained for them, and how much it costs.
“Among the ultimate ‘buyers’ are many journalists looking for a story. In one major case investigated by the ICO, the evidence included records of information supplied to 305 named journalists working for a range of newspapers.”
In July this year, PM David Cameron refused to widen the scope of the Leveson inquiry to include the cases uncovered by Motorman.
Speaking last month, the SNP’s Culture and Media spokesperson at Westminster, Pete Wishart said: “The hacking activities by News of the World were reprehensible, but we cannot assume they were confined to just one newspaper or form of media.
“It is disappointing therefore that the Prime Minister has rejected the Scottish Government’s call to include an investigation into the findings of the Information Commissioners 2006 report on Operation Motorman within its terms of reference.
“Lord Leveson’s inquiry should not be limited, but extended to the whole media, including sound, visual and social media and not just confined to phone hacking.
“Westminster has presided over a systematic failure to regulate the press, just as it totally failed to provide proper regulation of the financial sector.
“A free and vigorous press is the bedrock of our democratic system, but clearly that cannot and must not extend to newspapers acting in violation of the laws of the land, which is what has been allowed to happen for years – despite the Operation Motorman report in 2006.”
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