Archive for the ‘Information Commissioner’ tag

Illegal trade in private information set to continue

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If you want to know how difficult it is to alter the behaviour of the press, take a look at the news this week that Gordon Brown is ‘scrapping… longstanding plans for a clampdown on newspapers that illegally buy personal data’ (from David Leigh & Rob Evans). It’s a cautionary tale of why governments find it so hard to regulate the media in a democratic society.

The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has been pressing for a change in the law ever since he uncovered copious evidence that showing journalists regularly pay private detectives to gather private information – much of it illegally (see ‘What Price Privacy’). Yet Thomas also discovered it was virtually impossible to do anything about it. The Press Complaints Commission refused to do an investigation into the newspapers (excepting a polite letter inquiring whether editors were engaged in any wrongdoing). And the police, after initially pursuing certain cases, determined the law was not strong enough to make it worth their while prosecuting (after lengthy, expensive court cases the most they could hope for was a fine).

Thomas therefore recommended strengthening the law to prevent the illegal collection of private information, while at the same time making the ‘public interest defence’ more explicit. The threat of a prison sentence – to a maximum of two years – would, Thomas argued, deter journalists from making searches unless demonstrably in the public interest, and enable the police to take action if the law was broken.

You could make a strong argument that such a threat is excessive, but if you do then – given the prevalence of the trade in private information – you have to offer an alternative. You have to, for example, make clear how you would strengthen self-regulation. Yet this is what the press have singularly failed to do. While at the same time screaming bloody murder about Thomas’ plans.

Donald Trelford’s column in the Independent on Monday was an excellent public example of the screaming that’s been going on for months behind closed doors. His piece sounded scary, sinister and urgent. Yet it was also highly exaggerated and misleading. Subtitled ‘If this Bill is passed, it could mean the end of investigative journalism’ (nonsense), it went on to say the government was trying to ‘criminalize investigative journalism’ (as opposed to increasing the penalties for – already unlawful – searches into private life), and claimed that the Information Commissioner had ‘produced no evidence that any of these inquiries [into private information] were illegal’.

Yet if you read the document Trelford is referring to (‘What Price Privacy’), this is exactly what it does provide. It states (on page 15) that the evidence gathered by the police investigation Operation Motorman showed that:


‘This [private investigators gathering private information] was not just an isolated business operating occasionally outside the law, but one dedicated to its systematic and highly lucrative flouting. Nor could its customers [the newspapers] escape censure. Some of the information obtained (such as PNC checks, ex-directory telephone numbers and details of frequently dialled numbers) cannot normally be obtained by such businesses, by lawful means. Others – such as personal addresses – can be obtained lawfully only by the old footslogging means such as personal checks of the full electoral register. The prices charged for some pieces of information raised questions about their provenance: either the price was too low for information obtained lawfully (as in the case of personal addresses), or it was high enough to indicate criminal activity (as in criminal records checks).’

It now seems unlikely that Thomas’ bill will pass – thanks mainly to the loud complaints of newspaper editors. In itself this is no terrible thing – further regulation is rarely the best solution – as long as its failure elicits a quid pro quo of reform of self-regulation. Sadly, going by the past record of this government and of the PCC, we have little hope of this either.

Written by Martin Moore

April 2nd, 2008 at 7:59 am

The sprat to catch the mackerel

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It seems like a strange, back door way of dealing with intrusion by journalists.

Nick Mathiason reported in the Observer yesterday that the government plans to regulate private investigators. The catalyst for this, Mathiason suggested, was the inability of police to prosecute two private invesigators who had been collecting personal information – much of it gathered illegally – on behalf of journalists (305 in all), see previous blog.

At the time Richard Thomas, the information commissioner, called for stronger penalties for journalists (up to two years imprisonment).

Unwilling to sanction such draconian measures the government has instead decided bring in laws that enable it to suspend/withdraw licenses from private investigators who break the rules (with consequent constraints on their freedom).

Surely it would make more sense to make self-regulation of news organisations more effective? If the Press Complaints Commission had conducted a proper investigation of the 305 journalists – including disciplining some of them, and had instituted policies designed to prevent them acting in the same way in the future, then we wouldn’t need more laws to police the detectives. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

Written by Martin Moore

January 14th, 2008 at 4:55 pm

The power of information

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What did we do before we had an Information Commissioner?

Richard Thomas now crops up on such a regular basis, sounding the alarm about everything from sloppy information security at banks to the illegal acquisition of information by journalists. I’m amazed we got along for so many years without him.

Thomas does two unenviable jobs at the same time – criticising organisations for being too transparent and criticising organisations for not being transparent enough. Sort of like riding two horses in the opposite direction at once.

Today he’s on the ‘too transparent’ horse, laying into major companies for a “horrifying” number of data security breaches (from Philip Inman). On Radio 4 he talked about how banks had put thousands of people’s personal financial information at risk, and how the Department of Health had accidentally made young doctor’s private applications available to the public (via the MTAS scheme). “Never before has the threat of intrusion to people’s privacy been such a risk” he says in the ICO annual report.

And not long ago he was riding the other horse, telling MPs they had to be open about their expenses. He has been, and continues to be, a champion of Freedom of Information. “I see FOI as a reminder that governments are acting on behalf of people,” he told Alice Miles, “acting in their name and spending their money”.

It’s just a shame he doesn’t have more individual examples of identity theft and fraud etc since these would make his arguments about the dangers that much more potent.

Written by Martin Moore

July 11th, 2007 at 1:29 pm

The PCC doth protest too much

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I can’t help but get the impression that the Press Complaints Commission is feeling a little under pressure. Its 2006 annual report, released this week, is a weighty 28 pages, 50% bigger than last years. The PCC uses the extra girth to defend its actions to protect people’s privacy, to make newspapers give prominence to corrections, to influence the behaviour of the press in Suffolk (behind the scenes), to clear up the aftermath of the Clive Goodman phone tapping affair, and to prevent media scrums and harassment.
An aggrieved tone saturates the report. Phrases like ‘something that is often overlooked’, ‘leads some people erroneously to think’, and ‘some people suggest that…’ suggest the body is determined to dispell the idea it is ineffective.
There are, however, a few things the report does not mention:
- That less than 1% of cases are adjudicated (*stats based on year Oct ’05 – Oct ’06 because, bizarrely, full stats for ’06 not included in report)
- That 84.3% of complaints are thrown out before they even reach the resolution or adjudication stage

- That the PCC has taken no action about the 305 journalists found by the Information Commissioner to be repeatedly breaking clause 10 of the Editorial Code, nor about the systematic collection of personal information by major news organisations (its ‘investigation’ into phone tapping would be better described as a ‘polite enquiry’, see Roy Greenslade’s blog)
- That the PCC has not, following the Clive Goodman case, interviewed Goodman’s editor, but chose instead to interview his successor who – coming from America – had no knowledge either of Goodman’s actions nor how widespread Goodman’s behaviour was within News of the World.
This is not to mention the way the press acted when the sailors returned from Iran, or towards Kate Middleton, or towards the family of Sally Clark (saved for 2007 report?).
At least the PCC recognises it has alot of defending to do – and it has been making noises that it is intending to become more proactive. But let’s hope it realises it still has a long way to go before it is seen to be an effective self-regulatory body.

Written by Martin Moore

April 27th, 2007 at 11:45 am

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