Information Commissioner Christopher Graham came across as a pretty sensible guy giving evidence to the Commons culture, media and sport committee yesterday.
MPs demanded repeatedly to know why the ICO did not name and shame the 305 journalists from a range of national newspapers who had bought information from investigator Steve Whittamore as revealed in the ICO’s Operation Motorman inquiry of 2006.
Graham, a former BBC journalist himself, explained that he understood that journalists were perfectly entitled to purchase private information – such as ex-directory phone numbers – if they were acting in the public interest, ie. investigating crime. And furthermore that much of the information purchased from Whittamore may have been obtained legally.
He couldn’t release all the names without investigating every single case, he said – appearing to show a real understanding of the intricacies of investigative journalism.
But when it comes to possible penalties for data offences Graham strays from the reasonable to the barmy.
He repeatedly urged MPs yesterday to recommend that the Home Office activates new penalties comprising jail terms of up to two years for those who deal in secret information. Following a campaign by those in the media, in April 2008 the Government shelved the jail terms for data offences which were part of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.
Now Graham wants these activated – which Justice Secretary Jack Straw could do at the stroke of a pen.
Graham doesn’t appear to be specifically targeting journalists with this move. He admitted yesterday that no new evidence of journalists buying and selling illegal data has come to light since Operation Motorman.
But journalists would undoubtedly come under attack from such a law.
They would always have the defence that they were acting in the public interest. But the public interest is devilishly difficult to define and such a law would alway be open to abuse by future regimes.
Our prisons are already filled to bursting points with violent offenders and thieves. Let’s not add a new category of information criminals to their number.