Journalists must be exempt from data protection laws that threaten freedom of speech, senior ministers have warned national newspaper editors.
The editors of The Daily Telegraph, The Times and Daily Mail have written a joint letter to the two secretaries for Justice and Culture on a new code of conduct drafted by the Information Commissioner.
The new code, according to the three drafters, “undermines the very foundations of journalism” and will transform the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) into a statutory regulator of the press.
The ICO has launched a consultation on a new draft code of conduct for journalists on the use of personal data.
In a letter sent last week to Michelle Donelan, secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, and Dominic Raab, justice secretary, the three drafters warned of the damage that would be caused by the new code.
Chris Evans, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, and his fellow editors Tony Gallagher and Ted Verity have warned that the new code threatens free speech in the UK. The editors are urging the government to introduce an exemption for journalists from data protection laws in a forthcoming Bill of Rights. Such provisions, they say, already exist in Germany, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand.
“The code undermines the foundations of journalism”
Under the terms of the Data Protection Act 2018, the ICO must publish a statutory code of conduct for journalists to follow. But the editors say the ICO “upends” journalists’ right to report on individuals in the “public arena” by insisting that any information held on a digital device about them is personal data.
Under the proposed ICO code, for journalists to report on such personal data, they must first demonstrate a “legitimate reason”. Editors said it was impractical in a newsroom. It would require publishers to outline policies on how public interest decisions are made and “keep track of every decision.”
In the letter, the editors wrote: “We appreciate that the ICO is in some difficulty, as it is required under the Data Protection Act 2018 to publish a legal code of conduct, which needs to be taken into consideration by courts and tribunals.
“Unfortunately, in doing so, he drafted a code that we believe undermines the very foundations of journalism and would turn the ICO into a legal regulator of the media.”
‘Law incompatible with journalism’
The letter adds: “The fundamental premise upon which freedom of the press is based is that, while individuals are entitled to privacy in their homes 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 libel and contempt laws.
“This is enshrined in the Code of Conduct for Publishers, which is adhered to by the vast majority of British journalists.
“The ICO code turns all of that upside down. Under the Code, personal data is any information about an individual stored on a digital device. This includes information that by its nature is public, such as someone’s job title. It also extends to information that is not factual: “opinions about an individual may be personal data.”
The editors urged the ICO to rethink its code, to better reflect “the realities of journalism”. But they also warn that data protection law “as it stands” is “incompatible with journalism,” adding: “Other democracies that place a high value on freedom of expression … have recognized this and have exempted journalism from data protection law”.
In urging ministers to use the new Bill of Rights, introduced by Raab, to protect free speech, the drafters said: ‘There would be no better way to achieve this than by using this legislation to exempt the otherwise free British press from the shackles of data protection law.
“There is a serious danger under the code as proposed that no form of journalism will be immune from costly and time-consuming lawsuits.”