An inquiry into the leak of CCTV footage that led to Matt Hancock’s demise as health secretary is not about investigating The Sun or journalists, the Information Commissioner has said.
Hancock resigned from the Cabinet after footage published by the newspaper showed him kissing aide Gina Coladangelo in his departmental office, in breach of Covid-19 rules.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has faced criticism over a raid on two homes in the south of England where it seized computer equipment, as it probes an alleged data breach relating to the incident.
The Sun called the raids an “outrageous abuse” that could deter whistleblowers from coming forward.
Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham told the PA news agency that the regulator has a “statutory responsibility” to investigate reports of a data breach “administering the laws that Parliament has given us”.
“I’m also passionate about free journalism, the importance of an independent press and I’m also passionate about whistleblowers,” she said.
“But whistleblowers and the public interest turns on us establishing the facts in this case, so it’s important that we go in and we look at the facts and only then will we make a determination as to whether this data breach was in the public interest.
“You know, from the other side of the equation there is a lot of concern in the security community and among the public that their personal information collected on CCTV is used for security purposes.
“On the one hand, we have the security stakeholders saying, ‘Get in there and investigate’ and on the other side people somehow think we’re investigating The Sun or journalists and we are not, we’re looking at whether or not there was a contravention of the law, the data protection law.”
The ICO said at the time of the raids that Emcor Group, which provides CCTV services at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), submitted a breach report alleging the images were taken from the system without consent.
According to the regulator, the alleged breach falls under Section 170 of the Data Protection Act 2018, which does include a “public interest” defence under certain circumstances.
Denham warned that the Online Safety Bill, designed to better protect vulnerable people online from a range of threats such as child sex exploitation and terrorism content, could contend with similar “competing interests”.
“I think the Online Safety Bill and the online harms regime is going to be facing the same kind of need to balance competing interests and that’s just the nature of modern regulation and especially regulating new technology,” she told PA.
Denham also said she would not be seeking information from The Sun, after editor-in-chief Victoria Newton said she would rather go to jail than reveal the names of their informants.
Newton wrote on Friday that she was “shocked and appalled” by the ICO raid.
“The raid was carried out by a quango organisation created to uphold information rights in the public interest,” she said in a Sun column.
“Its remit is not to criminalise genuine whistleblowers bringing information to the media that the public has a right to know.”
Meanwhile, the ICO has launched a separate inquiry into the use of private correspondence channels in DHSC.
It follows reports that Lord Bethell and former health secretary Matt Hancock routinely used private email accounts to discuss Government business.
“If you think about the pandemic and all the decisions that have been made that have affected people, their freedom to be able to move around, go to work, see their family, these kinds of decisions need to be preserved on a Government network in a Government system, especially when you think about the Government’s promised inquiry,” she said.
“My interest in this is to preserve and make sure that we preserve records that are related to one of the most important top political times that we’ve seen since the Second World War.”