Editors have urged the House of Lords to ‘see sense’and reject an amendment to the Data Protection Act that could see journalists jailed for up to two years if they buy illegally obtained information.
The proposed law change has been pushed through by Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, who claimed in an interview this week that the illegal buying and selling of stolen data was ‘going on to a very considerable extent’– fuelled by ‘a whole network of rather shady detectives”.
Thomas has argued that the current penalties – a fine of up to £5,000 at magistrates court or an unlimited fine at crown court – are not a big enough deterrent to stop the ‘obtaining of tittle-tattle by deception”.
‘The existing regime of fines is not working,’he told the Radio 4 Today programme this week. ‘The time has come for a prison sentence to be available to deter people from going down this route of stealing personal information.”
The planned amendment to section 55 of the Act comes two years after the Information Commissioner’s Office published a report, What Price Privacy?, which found records of 305 journalists who had used private investigators to obtain information, some of which breached data protection law.
The move also follows the prosecution of News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman, who was sentenced to four months in jail, under separate legislation, after pleading guilty to tapping into private voicemail messages.
Bob Satchwell, the executive director of the Society of Editors, said it was wrong to base the proposed clampdown on what he claimed was out-of-date evidence.
‘We’re hoping that all members of the House of Lords see the sense of this and don’t just have a knee-jerk reaction to the Information Commissioner’s report from several years ago, ignoring the fact that there have been substantial changes in media practice,’he told Press Gazette.
‘Since he raised the issue there’s been a tightening up of the rules through better guidance, through the PCC and through papers themselves.”
Thomas has said the proposed amendment would not have an impact on investigative journalists’ ability to expose stories that are genuinely in the public interest.
‘The cases we’ve come across [include] the phone records of a pop singer. These are not public-interest cases,’he said. ‘If you are [doing this] for good reasons of journalism, you are completely protected.”
But Satchwell said he believed it would be far better to strengthen the Information Commissioner’s ability to investigate data protection breaches rather than push for harsher criminal penalties.
‘[If people knew] he was out there on the prowl and had the ability to investigate properly, it would surely be a greater deterrent,’he said.
The Guardian reported this week that Prime Minister Gordon Brown was expected to drop the proposals to jail journalists who illegally obtain personal data.