ICO's reputation takes a hit after Leveson testimony by former deputy

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The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has never had an easy existence, many criticising it as a toothless watchdog before it had the power to fine organisations, and then complaining that it has failed to use this power correctly since it was introduced.

The ICO's reputation took another hit on Wednesday when a former deputy commissioner, Alexander Owens, gave evidence at the Leveson Inquiry about his work in investigating newspapers in 2003.

Owens explained that soon after starting the Operation Motorman case he was quickly told by none other than his boss, Richard Thomas, to ignore any links between the emerging hacking allegations and the press.

"Within weeks of commencing our work [we] were informed that we were not to make contact with any of the newspapers identified and we were not to speak to, let alone interview, any journalists," he said in his witness statement.

"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."

Equally as damning are Owens' comments relating to current deputy information commissioner David Smith, who appeared on Panorama in April to discuss the phone hacking scandal and the ICO's earlier work on the allegations.

"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'," said Owens.

"This I knew was not only inaccurate but deliberately misleading. What David Smith had omitted to tell the public was there was overwhelming evidence to establish numerous cases against journalists."

However, while it's easy to find fault with the ICO, the organisation was clearly one of countless groups, businesses and individuals that dared not incur the wrath of the Murdoch media empire, even if they were operating on behalf of the government.

01 Dec 2011

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