The Press, private investigators and a clean bill of health from the watchdog

No evidence has been found of newspaper journalists illegally obtaining confidential personal records from private investigators in the past five years,  the Leveson Inquiry heard yesterday.

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham also rejected suggestions he should investigate companies that provide newspapers with personal information, because there was no indication they were acting unlawfully.

His predecessor Richard Thomas released two reports in 2006 which highlighted the scale of the trade in private data by a private investigator used by the media.

They revealed that newspapers and magazines made hundreds of requests to private detective Steve Whittamore, who was convicted of illegally accessing data in April 2005.

But asked if he thought the practice was still going on, Mr Graham said: ‘I have seen no further evidence beyond what we published in 2006.

‘If there was evidence of further breaches … it would have been drawn to my attention and it hasn’t.

‘I don’t think we are going to get very far if we invite the Information Commissioner to apply a scattergun approach and just go around checking different websites and different inquiry agencies on the off-chance they may be breaking the law.’

He said preventing workers from the health and financial sector from selling private details for profit was a greater priority for the watchdog than going on a ‘fishing expedition’.

‘There are many, many offences being committed. It just doesn’t happen to include newspapers at the moment,’ he added.

Detailing the types of cases the Information Commissioner’s Office dealt with, Mr Graham said they investigated individuals who ‘think it’s perfectly okay to access someone’s medical records in order to find the telephone numbers of their in-laws, who they’re having a fight with’.

Or, he said, ‘the bank clerk in Haywards Heath who thinks it’s fine to look at someone’s bank records in order to provide the case in her husband’s defence in a sex attack trial. That’s what we’re dealing with’.

Mr Graham said journalists should still use the so-called ‘dark arts’ if they believe there is a public interest in pursuing a story.

‘Surely a free press operates within a framework of law, and a vibrant and healthy press, challenging those in authority and doing the job that it should be doing, operates within the law,’ he added.

In 2003, officers raided the Hampshire home of Whittamore as part of an Information Commission investigation into the illegal purchase of confidential data called Operation Motorman.

Mr Graham also told the inquiry the Daily Mail was mentioned in the Motorman files after asking the investigator for the contact details of former Labour defence minister Peter Kilfoyle.

The commissioner said the request for information was on a Sunday night after Mr Kilfoyle had ‘stormed out’ of Government, and newspapers were ‘very reasonably’ seeking a comment. In his view, it was a ‘manifestly defensible use’ of the investigator’s services.

By Nick Mcdermott

Last updated at 12:20 AM on 27th January 2012