Newspapers are “too big” to take on, Leveson Inquiry told

Too big to fail, too big to investigate… It goes without saying that the larger, the more successful and the more wealthy a company or individual is, the more they can get away with. First, it was the banks deemed “too big to fail” – leading governments to hand over billions to the banking sector in bailouts. Now, we are told that newspapers were deemed too big to “take on”, as an official was told during his attempted investigation into the press.

Yesterday, the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press was told that a former official in charge of investigating potential breaches of privacy by newspapers was ordered to back off because the newspaper groups were “too big” to take on.

Alex Owens, who had spent 3 decades in the police force, had uncovered a cache of documents showing that thousands of ex-directory telephone numbers were being obtained on behalf of journalists. The numbers included those of the parents of Milly Dowler, and well as those of Charlotte Church and Sara Payne. Owens said every newspaper apart from the “Dandy and the Beano” was named in the documents uncovered as part of the Operation Motorman investigation in the early part of the last decade.

Giving evidence, Owens questioned why nobody had sought to pursue this startling evidence, incriminating reporters, journalists and newspapers. “We were in a position to prosecute everyone in the chain from the ‘blagger’ right up the journalists and possibly even the newspaper groups,” Owens said.

Owens told the Leveson Inquiry that he went to the head of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) Richard Thomas and his deputy Francis Aldhouse to report his findings. “It was at this point Francis Aldhouse [former deputy head of the ICO], with a shocked look on his face, said ‘we can’t take the press on, they are too big for us’,” he said.

“Richard Thomas did not respond. He merely looked straight ahead appearing to be somewhat bemused by the course of action I was recommending. For my own part I remember thinking ‘It’s our job to take them on or indeed anyone else on, that’s what we are paid to do. If we do not do it then who does?”

 Owens blamed “fear” at the ICO for the refusal to help investigate claims, and decided to go public, possibly facing prosecution.

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