The refusal of the police and hospitals, citing the Data Protection Act, to give details to the press of major incidents has put the Croydon Post in an invidious position.
The free paper’s splash story that a five-year-old injured in a fire was in hospital suffering from smoke inhalation was followed swiftly by a telephone call from the girl’s distraught mother to say her daughter had died six days earlier – on the night of the fire.
Post editor Malcolm Starbrook apologised and the Post’s sister, paid-for weekly, the Croydon Advertiser, carried the correct story of Taylor Morrow’s death. The Post heard of the fire, two weeks ago, after the fire brigade had rescued Taylor and taken her to the Mayday Hospital. The police refused to give her name, citing the Data Protection Act. The hospital also cited the Act and refused to give a condition check unless the newspaper could supply a name.
A Post reporter who went to the scene of the fire to question neighbours about the family discovered that they had moved in only a few days previously and neighbours did not yet know their name.
The mother was not only grieving for her child but was extremely upset that after the fire her house had been burgled, Starbrook said.
He told Press Gazette: "I think this indicated to me the absurdity of the way the Data Protection law is being used by people who have failed to understand what it is about.
"You could hardly say the information on this child was an issue of privacy. I’m having to say we are very sorry but the information was, we thought, accurate.
"In reality it wouldn’t have taken very much to tell us the child had died."
Society of Editors executive director, Bob Satchwell, supported Starbrook: "This was a situation that was waiting to happen. The problem is that some authorities, including some police forces, are totally misunderstanding the need for laws to protect privacy and they are using them in totally the wrong way.
"This was an incident which was very public and involved the use of public resources. It would have saved so much heartache if a common sense approach had been followed from the outset."
By Jean Morgan