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April 13, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:15am

ICO probe into Sun Matt Hancock snog scoop whistleblowers finds ‘insufficient evidence’ to prosecute

By Charlotte Tobitt

The UK’s data watchdog has found “insufficient evidence” to prosecute two suspected whistleblowers over a leak to The Sun of CCTV footage showing then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock kissing his aide.

The Information Comissioner’s Office said the leaked images given to The Sun of Hancock with Gina Coladangelo were “most likely obtained by someone recording the CCTV footage screens with a mobile phone”.

It carried out search warrants to raid the homes of two suspected whistleblowers and seized six mobile phones, but none of them had the CCTV footage on them.

It therefore “found insufficient evidence to prosecute two people suspected of unlawfully obtaining and disclosing CCTV footage from the Department for Health and Social Care,” the ICO said on Wednesday.

Sun editor Victoria Newton said: “We welcome the closure of this investigation. It should never have been opened in the first place and, as we said at the time, it was an outrageous abuse of state power which risked having a chilling impact on whistleblowers and a free press.

“The investigation was overwhelmingly in the public interest, a fact acknowledged by senior figures on all sides of the political debate.

“The Sun is proud to hold those in power to account, and stand up for a free press as an instrument of democracy to inform our audiences so that they can make decisions based on trusted information.”

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The criminal probe under the Data Protection Act 2018 was launched in July after the DHSC’s CCTV operator Emcor reported a personal data breach.

Section 170 of the Act says it is an offence to obtain or disclose personal data without the consent of the controller, but includes a defence for preventing or detecting crime and acting in the public interest.

The ICO said it had a “legal duty to carry out an impartial assessment of the evidence available” given the “seriousness of the report and the wider implications it potentially had for the security of information across government”.

However the investigation was widely criticised for the potential implications for the protection of sources and whistleblowers. Newton told The Andrew Marr Show in July the story “was clearly in the public interest and all this is going to do is, in the future, stop whistleblowers coming forward to papers like the Sun or the Mail or the Telegraph who got MPs’ expenses and indeed the BBC relies on whistleblowers to bring scandals to our attention.

“We can’t have a democracy where the only place somebody can go to expose wrongdoing is the place where they work because it won’t get exposed, so I’m just staggered really that they thought it was in the public interest to do this.”

Newton also said she would rather go to jail than reveal The Sun’s “angry whistleblower”.

The Sun won Scoop of the Year at the British Journalism Awards 2021 for revealing Hancock’s affair, which was going on during Covid-19 social distancing rules he helped to set and led to his resignation.

Sun political editor Harry Cole told Press Gazette afterwards that the response to the story, that included threats from government officials as well as the ICO investigation, could have a “chilling effect on the freedom of the press”.

The ICO previously insisted its probe was not about investigating The Sun or journalists. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, who has since been succeeded by John Edwards, told PA: “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 Spectator previously revealed using a Freedom of Information request that the ICO investigation had cost £5,847, excluding staff time, by the end of December.

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