Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has called for the jailing of journalists who buy secret information, in a crackdown which he has said could affect hundreds of reporters.
He said current fines under the Data Protection Act are too lax and has called for jail sentences of up to two years.
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But the NUJ and the Society of Editors have both urged him to bear in mind that journalists exposing wrong doing should be exempt.
Thomas this week presented a report to Parliament which “reflects a deep concern that confidential information can too easily be obtained improperly from public and private organisations, causing significant harm and distress to individuals”.
Thomas wants to target those illegally buying and selling personal information such as addresses, ex-directory telephone numbers, call records, criminal records and bank account details.
In a statement, his office said: “Information is usually obtained by making payments to staff or impersonating the target individual or another official. Some victims are in the public eye; others are entirely private citizens.”
It added: “The ultimate buyers of illegally obtained personal information include journalists, financial institutions and local authorities wishing to trace debtors, estranged spouses seeking details of their ex-partner’s whereabouts or finances and criminals intent on fraud or witness or juror intimidation.”
Thomas said that in one major case, investigated by his office, records had been found of secret information being sold to 305 named journalists from a range of newspapers.
He said that in “Operation Motorman” his officers searched the premises of a private detective in Hampshire and found that he had used associates to obtain information illegally about BT accounts and DVLA records.
Thomas said that the detective’s customers included the media and especially newspapers.
He said: “At a time when senior members of the press were publicly congratulating themselves for having raised journalistic standards across the industry, many newspapers were continuing to subscribe to an undercover economy devoted to obtaining personal information forbidden to them by the law.”
NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said: “It must be understood that there are times when a journalist must use exceptional means to investigate important matters where all other methods have been exhausted, and he or she should not be punished for this if the public interest is clearly being served.
“All of our members agree to abide by our code of conduct when they join the union and they know that we will not condone any action that does not comply with it. We also have an Ethics Committee that keeps these issues under constant review.”
Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors, said: “Editors and journalists should always obey the law – but there should be room for interpretation based on the fact that it would be wrong for the law to stop journalists from exposing wrong doing.”