Something rotten in the state of the Information Commissioner’s Office – will Leveson act?
The problems with employing an ex-copper, especially a senior ex-copper, are twofold. Firstly, he has a pretty good idea of what will and will not make a successful prosecution; and secondly, he is well-versed in giving evidence from recorded notes. The danger comes when those notes are turned against you. Richard Thomas, the previous incumbent as Information Commissioner, must now be regretting he ever employed Detective Inspector (retired) Alexander John Owens as an investigator.
The story effectively starts in 2002. The Devon and Cornwall Police had become concerned that serving and retired offices were illegally accessing the police national computer and selling the data to a private detective. The police intended to search the premises of the detective agency and expected to find evidence relating to the Data Protection Act. They invited Mr Owens as an investigator with the Information Commissioner’s Office, to assist – and he did so.
The result of the search was the seizure of a large amount of paperwork. Early examination of this paperwork led to the initiation of Operation Motorman (so-called because of illegal accesses to DVLA records). Its purpose was to identify corrupt sources at the DVLA, and the detective agency’s ‘customers’ who had commissioned the actions.
One request to the detective agency was for a ‘protected number’. It came from Stephen Whittamore. In March 2003, Mr Owens and four other ICO investigators effected a search warrant at Whittamore’s home. It rapidly became clear that he “worked on a full time basis for numerous newspaper groups and journalists obtaining a variety of information for them. This ranged from ‘previous convictions’ (CRO checks), VRM checks, Ex directory telephone numbers, mobile phone numbers, telephone number conversions and even ’family and friends’ lists.”
On analysing the seized data, Owens decided that it would be impossible to interview all the ‘victims’, and that the best course of action would be to work on a select pool of 25/30 prosecution cases. From this basis he would be able proceed with an overall ‘conspiracy to breach the Data Protection Act’ incorporating all the parties involved. This he did, using his police experience to protect the data and obtain legal counsel. Counsel agreed that ‘conspiracy’ was the best route.
And then came the heavy hand of Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner. Owens was informed that he was “not to make contact with any of the newspapers identified and we were not to speak to, let alone, interview any journalists. Despite our protests we were told this was the decision of Richard Thomas and that he would deal with the press involvement by way of the Press Complaints Council. It was at this moment we knew no journalist could or ever would be prosecuted in relation to our investigation.” The newspapers and journalists were being protected, and Owens was to restrict his investigation “solely to those at the bottom of the pyramid i.e. those involved with corruptly supplying information or ‘blagging’ information.”
Owens continued with his ‘lesser’ investigation and heard no more about the journalists. He completed his investigation in February 2004, and “handed over all the evidence gathered to the ICO Legal Department with our recommendations that all parties identified as being involved be jointly prosecuted for ’conspiracy to breach the Data Protection Act 1998’.”
More than a year later he learned that Whittamore had appeared before Blackfriars Court and had been given a Conditional Discharge.
Now, two questions come to mind.
- Was this personal cowardice on the part of Richard Thomas in declining to take on the press, or was it on instruction from the higher regions of government? Remember that Tony Blair was prime minister, and that he cultivated a close relationship with the press.
- Does any spectre of this cowardice/corruption still haunt the corridors of the ICO?
We are unlikely to ever get a satisfactory answer to the first question. But back to Owens, now retired from the ICO, on the second…
In April 2011 I watched David Smith the Deputy Information Commissioner on a Panorama programme. In this programme he made a statement that no journalist was ever prosecuted ’because we didn’t have the evidence that those journalists knew beyond all reasonable doubt that the information had been obtained illegally’. This I knew was, not only inaccurate but also deliberately misleading. What David Smith had omitted to tell the public was, that there was overwhelming evidence to establish numerous prime facie cases against many journalists but the Investigations Unit had been stopped from gathering any further additional evidence, by the Commissioner himself.”
It seems beyond all reasonable doubt that the cowardice and corruption that existed in 2002 to 2005 still exists in the Information Commissioner’s Office today. Quite simply, the ICO is not fit for purpose.