Data protection and journalism – ICO publishes guidance

The Information Commissioner has today published his keenly anticipated guidance on ‘Data Protection and Journalism: A Guide for the Media’.  The guidance has been published following a lengthy consultative process and in response to a recommendation made in the Leveson report. The guidance has much to say on the controversial subject of the journalistic exemption provided for under s. 32 DPA. As readers of this blog will know, section 32 largely disapplies the various obligations provided for under the DPA where the conditions provided for in s. 32(1) are met:

‘32(1)     Personal data which are processed only for the special purposes [i.e. the purposes of journalism, literature and art] are exempt from any provision to which this subsection relates if—

(a)     the processing is undertaken with a view to the publication by any person of any journalistic, literary or artistic material,

(b)     the data controller reasonably believes that, having regard in particular to the special importance of the public interest in freedom of expression, publication would be in the public interest, and

(c)     the data controller reasonably believes that, in all the circumstances, compliance with that provision is incompatible with the special purposes.’

The guidance analyses these various conditions at some length. Below are some edited highlights, along with some initial commentary.

  • Meaning of ‘Journalism’The guidance concludes that, following the ECJ’s judgment in the Satamedia case (Case C-73/07), the concept of journalism should be ‘interpreted broadly ’. Thus, ‘It will clearly cover all output on news, current affairs, consumer affairs or sport. Taken together with art and literature, we consider it is likely to cover everything published in a newspaper or magazine, or broadcast on radio or television – in other words, the entire output of the print and broadcast media, with the exception of paid-for advertising’(p. 29). However, it will also cover the activities of citizen bloggers, insofar as they relate to public interest journalism (p. 30). Moreover ‘non-media organisations may be able to invoke the exemption. If their purpose in processing the specific information is to publish information, opinions or ideas for general public consumption, this will count as a journalistic purpose – even if they are not professional journalists and the publication forms part of a wider campaign to promote a particular cause or achieve a particular objective. However, the information must be used only for publication, and not for the organisation’s other purposes’(p. 30).


  • Processing data ‘only for’ special purposes – The guidance effectively assumes that traditional media organisations will typically meet this requirement in respect of their data processing activities. So far as non-media organisations are concerned, it posits that they will not be able to rely on the s. 32 exemption if, in addition to processing the data for journalistic purposes, the data ‘are also used for the organisation’s other purposes – eg in political lobbying or in fundraising campaigns – the exemption will not apply’ (p. 31). [Note – this obviously begs the question of whether there is any neat dividing line between campaign-led journalism (which the Commissioner seems to think falls within the scope of s. 32) and ‘political lobbying’. It also begs the question whether traditional media organisations may themselves be engaged in political lobbying as an integral part of their publication activities].


  • ‘With a view to publication’ – The position adopted in the guidance is that, provided that the data processing is being undertaken with ‘the ultimate aim of publishing a story’, the s. 32(1)(a) requirement is fulfilled. The guidance goes on to state ‘In short, this means that the exemption can potentially cover any information collected, created or retained as part of a journalist’s day-to-day activities, both before and after publication. However, the exemption cannot apply to anything that is not an integral part of the newsgathering and editorial process’ (p. 31). [Note – as will be apparent the guidance seems to embody a very broad approach to s. 32(1)(a)].


  • Balancing rights The guidance repeatedly asserts that, when handling personal data in the media context, decision-makers should be weighing the public interest in publication/pursuing the story as against the privacy rights of affected data subjects. Thus, for example, on the subject of publication, the guidance states Publication is likely either to be fair and to comply with the DPA or to fall within the journalism exemption if it can be shown that someone at an appropriate level considered whether the public interest in publication outweighed individual privacy in the circumstances of the case and can give good reasons for this view when challenged’ (p. 13, emphasis added). When specifically discussing the s. 32 exemption, the guidance states: ‘You must reasonably believe publication is in the public interest – and that the public interest justifies the extent of the intrusion into private life. You must also reasonably believe that compliance with the relevant provision is incompatible with journalism. In other words, it must be impossible to comply and fulfil your journalistic purpose, or unreasonable to comply in light of your journalistic aims, having balanced the public interest in journalism against the effect upon privacy rights.’ (p. 27 emphasis added and see pp. 33-34). The guidance invites a similar balancing exercise to be conducted as and when journalists/editors are deciding whether or not to notify a data subject about the fact that their data is being collected or, further, whether or not to collect data using covert means (p. 10). [Note – this analysis is likely to be regarded as particularly controversial. This is because it arguably marks a significant departure from the language of the s. 32 exemption, which on its face seems to presuppose that the focus of the analysis is simply on whether publication is in the public interest, with no balancing of that interest as against the privacy rights of data subjects].


  • Responsibility for applying the public interest testThat said the guidance repeatedly states that, so far as the s. 32 exemption is concerned, it is journalists/editors and not the Commissioner who are responsible for deciding what is ‘in the public interest’. The Commissioner sees his role as testing whether the decisions of the relevant journalist/editor is reasonable, albeit that the guidance also states that he will not ‘disregard [the media’s views] lightly’ (p. 35).


  • ‘Compliance incompatible with the special purposes’ In his original draft guidance, the Commissioner suggested that, in order to invoke s. 32, it would have to be established that compliance with the provisions of the DPA would make it impossible to fulfil the journalistic purpose (see p. 30: ‘you must decide that the provision in question would stop you from doing your job’). The final version of the guidance states that, in order for reliance to be placed on the s. 32 exemption: …it must be impossible to comply and fulfil your journalistic purpose, or unreasonable to comply in light of your journalistic aims, having balanced the public interest in journalism against the effect upon privacy rights’ (p. 27, emphasis added). The underlined section of the citation indicates a more flexible test than the ‘you cannot do your job’ test suggested in the draft guidance (see further p. 37).


The guidance also contains the following noteworthy conclusions:

  • NotificationWhere media organisations are gathering data about individuals they should as a matter of course notify them of this fact, unless this is not practicable or it would undermine the journalistic activity. In deciding whether or not to notify, consideration should be given to the level of privacy intrusion resulting from the processing (pp. 9-10).


  • Covert methodsCovert methods should be used only where this is justified in the public interest, taking into account the adverse effects on the individual’s privacy. Even if covert methods have been used, once the data has been obtained the issue of notifying the data subject should be considered (p. 10).


  • Data retention – Data should be retained for no longer than is necessary and, any data which is retained, should be regularly reviewed in order to assess its utility. Contact details and background research are a vital journalistic resource, and you are likely to want to keep them for long periods or indefinitely, even if there is no specific story in mind at present. But you are ‘processing’ personal data just by keeping it, so you must comply with the DPA’ (p. 11). [This latter conclusion represents an important concession by the Commissioner that, in the context of journalism, data archives are likely to have an ongoing utility, even if they are not being actively deployed in the context of a current story].


  • Confidential sources – The guidance makes clear that the subject access regime cannot be used to gain access to information identifying confidential journalistic sources. Indeed, it confirms that disclosure of such information is itself likely to amount to a breach of the DPA ‘in many cases’ (p. 16).


  • Section 55 offences– The guidance states that, where you knowingly or recklessly obtain or disclose personal data without the consent of the relevant data controller, you may be committing a criminal offence under s. 55 DPA, even if your activities fall within the scope of s. 32. This is because the public interest defence available in respect of s. 55 offences holds you to a higher standard than the standard imposed under s. 32 (p. 10).

Finally, I should add that many of the principles identified in the guidance are likely to be subject to scrutiny and debate in the context of the ongoing Steinmetz v Global Witness case (discussed here), which is now before the Commissioner .

Anya Proops