November 29, 2012 8:59 pm

Cameron wary of tighter data protection

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Lord Justice Leveson has recommended toughening laws on data protection in a way that David Cameron, the prime minister, said could have a bad effect on investigative journalism.

Mr Cameron told the House of Commons he was “instinctively concerned about this proposal”, which came from the long-awaited Leveson report into press ethics published on Thursday.

Under current provisions of the Data Protection act, journalists have certain privileges in relation to obtaining and communicating private information, if they are doing so in the course of an investigation that is in the public interest.

The Leveson report recommends limiting these privileges only to information that is “necessary for publication” rather than data held “with to a view to publication”.

The report also proposed that members of the public should have more rights to know what data newspapers have gathered on them and are holding.

Lord Justice Leveson did not recommend changing rules that allow journalists to refuse to release information that would lead to the identification of sources, but other changes to a different law, the Police and Criminal Evidence act, suggested in the report, imply that those sources would have to sign affidavits to uphold this right.

Some media law experts told the inquiry this could be difficult to put into practice.

The Leveson inquiry heard evidence from the Information Commissioner’s Office that journalists had made “cavalier” use of data and Lord Justice Leveson was particularly critical of the use of private detective agencies, singling out the newspapers that were regular customers of an agency run by Steve Whittamore.

Material uncovered by the ICO in its Operation Motorman investigation into data protection offences “constituted evidence of serious and systemic illegality and poor practice in the acquisition and use of personal information which could have spread across the press as a whole”, the report said.

It criticised the ICO for not taking further action: “In the circumstances, an opportunity was missed to address problems in the culture, practices and ethics of the press, and to safeguard the position of victims.”

Lord Justice Leveson said many newspapers had agreed with him that there was prima facie evidence that their journalists committed offences under data protection laws, but for reasons of time he did not go through the evidence in detail.

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