Satchwell: data 'rules' led to Soham tragedy

Satchwell: ‘media played a big part in helping to investigate the case’

In the wake of the Soham murder trial, Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell has hit out at the misuse of the Data Protection Act by the police.

It emerged after the conviction of Ian Huntley that police had not kept previous allegations against him on file for fear of breaching the act.

Satchwell said: “This was bound to happen. We’ve been saying to the police for years that they have been sticking by what they thought were the rules when there was no common sense in it.

“Perhaps, now it has gone wrong in such a big way in the Soham case, people will recognise that if they don’t apply a huge dollop of common sense, it will go wrong in other areas.”

The act has caused controversy since its introduction in 1998 because it is given as a reason by police forces for not releasing routine crime information to the press.

Satchwell claimed the act had been used for “operational or administrative convenience” by the police to stop information reaching the press.

“Sometimes it is easier not to give out information to the media – it takes up time.

“Of course you should protect individuals from an overbearing state, but the Data Protection Act is being used in a way it was never intended. Far from protecting the public, it has put people’s lives in danger – and that is the tragedy of Soham.”

Newspaper Society political affairs director Santha Rasaiah told Press Gazette: “We and the regional press have constantly argued that a narrow focus and insistence upon consent over and above the other ‘fair processing’ routes under the Data Protection Act; over-cautious interpretation and practice; misunderstandings; misinterpretations; and convenient excuses have all led to unnecessary new blocks on dissemination of information attributed, rightly or wrongly, to the data protection regime.

“There needs to be a real determination to prevent unnecessary obstructions to disclosure of information, especially in the public sector. We will soon find out whether there is any actual readiness to draw up revised guidelines and improve openness, not just at the imminent meetings with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Department for Education and Skills, but across the public sector in the run-up to full implementation of the Freedom of Information Act next year.”

Satchwell also claimed the “other lesson” of the Soham trial was the way it showed the media had helped bring Huntley and Maxine Carr to justice.

“The interviews [with Huntley and Carr] which were used as hard evidence in court and the role played by the Grimsby Telegraph, which spotted the link with Huntley, played a massive part in bringing them to justice.

“Yet still people are jumping on the bandwagon, complaining about media coverage when the media has played a big part in helping to investigate the case, keeping it on the front pages – that led directly to the link with Huntley being made.”

By Jon Slattery

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