Conviction of investigators for info-blagging should ring alarm bells for journalists

The convictions of two private investigators who ‘blagged’ people’s person details from organisations should ring alarm bells for journalists.

The pair are awaiting sentence sentencing at Isleworth Crown Court in January for conspiring to unlawfully obtain personal data. They face unlimited fines.

There’s not a big difference between a private investigator and an investigative journalist.

And the prosecutions of journalists for offences other than phone hacking make me cautious how data protection legislation could be used in future – especially as the Information Commissioner wants to data offenders jailed rather than fined.

The investigators in the recent trial, Barry Spencer, 41, and Adrian Stanton, 40, used their London firm, ICU Investigations Ltd in Feltham, Middlesex to trick organisations into revealing people’s personal data to assist with debt recovery.

Their targets included utility companies, GP surgeries and TV Licensing. They claimed to be the individuals they were trying to trace.

Investigative journalists often use subterfuge and misrepresentation to obtain information. They are protected by the PCC Code if they can demonstrate the public interest, and they can’t get the information by other means.

But just because activities are protected by the code does not rule out DPA prosecutions for:

  • Unlawfully obtaining or misusing personal information
  • Selling or offer to sell information to a journalist that has been obtained without consent.

Section 32 of the DPA contains an exemption if an organisation is processing data with a view to publishing journalistic material.

In the past, if a journalist could justify public interest  PCC Code, he would usually be protected under the DPA, too. He could claim the Act was stopping him doing his job properly.

But this may change. The ICO will be providing more guidance on this in 2014.

A consultation on draft guidance is due early in the new year.

The issue flared up two years ago and the government backed down on the jail threat to journalists

An ICO spokesman said: ‘Ultimately, it would depend on the circumstances of the case and the public interest factors in the information being disclosed. Every case has to be judged on its merits.’  

Cleland Thom is a trainer and consultant in media law

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