Ken Clarke has said information uncovered by Operation Motorman, investigating the use of private detectives by journalists, was “startling”.
The Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor told the Leveson Inquiry he was shocked by the extent of data mining – the sometimes illegal obtaining of private information by investigators – revealed when the Information Commissioner published two reports on the practice in 2006. He expressed surprise that people “happily indulging” in illegal activity were not prosecuted.
The minister, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, said he was told to move his bank account after journalists attempted to bribe local branch staff in order to access the account.
He added: “The scale of it appears to be startling. Motorman made people aware this had [become] a very profitable and large industry… The scale has certainly shocked me – when I would have thought I was fairly worldly wise on the subject – but I had no idea it was going on in this monumental scale.”
However, Clarke argued he was not in favour of a public interest defence for data protection offences. He told the inquiry he had been lobbied by Paul Dacre and other media executives who wanted a legal defence for journalists breaking the law in pursuit of legitimate stories.
He said: “I do think journalists are entitled to bribe in an extreme case if it’s the only way in which they can get information about some major public scandal.
“I generally take the view that the press should be bound by the law like anyone else. But I do not rule out the possibility that there will be occasions where they will need to break the law to expose a crime or serious misdemeanour that would not otherwise be uncovered.”
He said Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, was drawing up new guidelines in relation to the Bribery Act, regarding journalists paying public officials for stories.
He went on to tell the inquiry the power of the press has become greater than the power of Parliament and said there had been a “marked cultural shift” in the relationship between journalists and politicians.
He said: “Politics now is a mass-media dominated activity. So is government. I’m not sure we’ve learnt how to handle it.”
He later added: “In the last 20 or 30 years there has been an obsession with newspapers, which wasn’t there before. The present incestuous relationship between the two is quite peculiar and all based on the belief that daily headlines really matter, and I don’t think they really do.”
Clarke said there was no point in politicians trying to curry favour with the press and questioned the power of the Sun to influence voters, saying he did not think the paper had a significant effect on an election in his life time. Rather, he said, Rupert Murdoch was skilled at switching his support to the winning party.
He said former prime minister Gordon Brown became “utterly obsessed” with media coverage and warned politicians from reading articles about themselves.
He added: “If I’d been in Gordon Brown’s entourage I’d have tried to stop him reading any newspapers and get back to the business of what they were going to do.
“My advice to some of my colleagues in the past has been to stop reading them when I found colleagues were being upset by the newspapers, quite inordinately. I don’t read them all myself and I never understood why politicians do. Margaret Thatcher never read a newspaper from one day to the next.”
The present enthusiastic relationship between [the press and politicians] is quite peculiar and all based by both side believing that the daily headlines really matter to an extraordinary extent, which I don’t believe for one moment they do – so far as real people in the real world outside Westminster and Whitehall are concerned.”
The Justice Secretary said the relationship changed after the victory of New Labour in 1997, and the appointment of former tabloid journalist Alastair Campbell as Number 10’s spin-doctor – which he described as the introduction of “control freakery” to Westminster. He told the inquiry he knew of one journalist who had been banned from the Treasury for a story she had written.
He warned Lord Justice Leveson that the conclusions of the inquiry would be criticised “wherever you put the line”.