Freelance journalists have been warned they are breaking the law and could be fined thousands of pounds unless they register with the Information Commissioner’s Office as a ‘data controller”.
Press Gazette has learned that the ICO has begun approaching freelances, urging them to register – because the personal information they collect in their day-to-day work is covered by the Data Protection Act.
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Under the law, anyone electronically processing data such as contact details is required to hand over any information about a named person if that person requests it – but lawyers have said most of the information gathered by journalists is exempt.
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Freelance photographer Charles Pycraft was fined almost £1,000 after he failed to reply to two letters from the ICO calling on him to register.
‘When they first contacted me I didn’t take it seriously. It’s another bit of post that you don’t deal with,’he told Press Gazette.
Advising other journalists not to get caught out, Pycraft said: ‘It’s only £35 – it takes less than five minutes to fill out. If you’re not doing anything wrong it doesn’t make any difference.”
The National Union of Journalists has reminded its freelance members of the need to register – and has said the fine for failing to do so could be as high as £5,000.
Staff journalists are not required to sign up, because the company that employs them should already be on the ICO’s database.
A spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner’s Office said: ‘We always advise that if you’re in any doubt, you should register.
‘A journalist would probably hold information about other people – bibliographical information. If it’s processed on a computer then chances are they would have to notify [us].
‘It would be the information contained in the articles you write that would identify individuals.”
Under data protection law, journalists are required to store information fairly, accurately, for limited purposes and for no longer than is necessary.
But lawyers have told Press Gazette that journalists would typically be exempt from the part of the law that allows a member of the public to request personal data held about them for a £10 flat fee.
Section 32 of the Act provides an exemption for journalists, saying personal data does not have to be released if it is ‘journalistic material”, used ‘with a view to the publication’and that publishing the information ‘would be in the public interest”.
Ibrahim Hasan, an information lawyer working for IBA Solicitors, said journalists could never be forced to release confidential source information under data protection, because the Act only applies to individuals seeking data about themselves.
‘While everyone has to comply, journalists are pretty well protected by the exemptions. I don’t think they should be worried too much,’he said.
‘If you do a hatchet job on a local councillor about all his expenses and as a consequence the councillor puts a request in, the chances are pretty much most of the information will be covered by the exemption.”
Hasan said it could be time-consuming – and costly – for a freelance journalist to deal with any request for data to be released.
‘Unfortunately the Act doesn’t make any distinction between an organisation with 20,000 employees and millions of pounds and somebody working from home. That’s just the way it is,’he said.
‘There are some safeguards – the individual has to be pretty specific about what they’re looking for. They can’t say: I want you to search through everything you have. They have to give some reasonable direction.”