ATTEMPTS by the UK government to categorise data held on public digital databases as “private” has sparked anger among the country’s media, who say it will make their jobs time-consuming and expensive.
Under the strict reading of the new journalism code of practice in the Bill of Rights being drafted by the Justice and Culture ministries, permission would have to be sought of the person concerned before their “private data” could be published.
Up until now information such as someone’s job title and home address, as well as company accounts, is considered to be public, and can be easily accessed by a third party.
If – as seems likely in many instances – an individual refused, newspapers would have to argue the case for the privacy breach before a judge, who would then decide if it was in the public interest for the information to be published.
Public databases such as the UK electoral roll and Companies House are routinely used by the media to trace and investigate fraudsters and criminals.
Both were extensively used when The Daily Telegraph revealed the scandal where members of parliament were claiming thousands of pounds in expenses from the taxpayer in 2009, which resulted in four parliamentarians later being jailed on false accounting charges.
National Security News (NSN) used public databases to investigate how Chinese spy Christine Lee was going to escape criminal charges when we published our story back in August.
Three UK National newspaper editors have written to the Culture and Justice secretaries to voice their strong objections to the proposed changes, which they say would threaten free speech.
Instead they have argued that journalists must remain exempt from the new data protection laws, as it “undermined the very basis of the press.”
The letter, signed by Chris Evans, Editor of The Daily Telegraph, Tony Gallagher, Editor of The Times and Ted Verity of the Daily Mail, follows a public consultation by the ICO last month on its draft journalism code of practice which concerns the use of personal data. Last month, the Society of Editors also warned that the code threatened freedom of expression and was likely to be impractical for everyday use by journalists.
Writing to Culture Secretary Michelle Donela, and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, the newspaper editors urged the British Government to protect journalism and take immediate action in tackling the damaging proposals, to ensure that journalists are exempt from data protection laws – something that most countries including the likes of Germany, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand are already doing to protect the free press.
They warned that the proposed code would open up even the most basic of reporting to highly “expensive and time consuming” legal challenges and would turn the Information Commissioner’s Office into a statutory press regulator.
The news editors wrote: “The fundamental premise on which press freedom rests is that, while individuals have a right to privacy in their home and private lives, what they say and do in the public arena can be reported, subject to a limited range of legal restrictions such as the laws of libel and contempt.
“This is enshrined in the Editors’ Code of Practice, to which the vast majority of British journalists adhere.
“The ICO code turns this on its head. Under the code, personal data is any information about an individual which is stored on a digital device.
“This includes information that is, by its nature, public – such as someone’s job title. It even extends to information which is not factual: ‘opinions about a person can be personal data.’”
According to the proposed code, journalists must have a lawful reason before publishing any personal details of people involved in the news even if it already exists in the public domain.
The danger here is that the bill does not clearly define what lawful means, leaving it down to publishers to create policies on how they determine whether the story is in the public interest and maintain a log of how they go about making those decisions.
This could prevent the publication of several major news stories which would otherwise normally be classified as of legitimate interest.
The Information Commissioner John Edwards has since hit back at claims in a blog on the ICO website vehemently denying his office’s proposed data protection and journalism code of practice would shackle the media.
Edwards said “Our codes do not create new law, but simply explain what is required under the existing law – indeed, similar codes already exist around protecting children’s data online or sharing data.
“There is nothing in the code constituting ‘a limit on the freedom of the press’ and claimed it is ‘misdirected and disingenuous’ to criticise it while it is still in the review stage.
Edwards said the ICO would continue to work with the media “to ensure we produce a clear and practical code.”
He stressed that “Where the media would like to be exempted from the law entirely, they must take their case to the Government.
“But until that point, it will remain that a free press is an essential function of our democracy, but so is the ability for a regulator to carry out the will of Parliament.”
According to The Times, Rishi Sunack told Dominic Raab this month he has deprioritised the legislation in favour of focusing on the small boats Channel migrant crisis, so predicting and managing the path forward remains unknown.
NSN has contacted the DCMS for comment.