The deputy commissioner at the Information Commissioner's Office David Smith has demanded the introduction of jail sentences to punish serious breaches of the Data Protection Act.
His call follows the investigation by The Independent into the media's involvement in the trade in private information by using the services of private investigator Steve Whittamore, as revealed by Operation Motorman.
Writing in today's Independent, Smith says: "We want action. The legislation for custodial sentences is already in place, ministers just have to bring it into force. This isn't just a crime that affects celebrities; it can devastate ordinary people's lives. It's about time we had an effective deterrent."
He also claims that any suggestion that the decision not to pursue prosecutions against journalists was driven by a fear of the press is entirely false.
"We exposed the involvement of the press in the first place. Our decision was based on expert legal advice that pursuing prosecutions would not be in the public interest, because of the difficulty in proving beyond all reasonable doubt that the journalists who received information from Mr Whittamore knew it could only be obtained illegally.
"Even if we had managed this, the maximum penalty was likely to have been a conditional discharge. This is before considering that some reporters would have had a valid 'public interest' defence.Smith adds: "Our priority was to sound the alarm. Our report [What Price Privacy?]exposed the widespread practice and was a far more effective method of raising awareness. It called for a custodial sentence to be available to the courts. Let's not forget that this is the more pressing issue."