Veil of secrecy by emergency services, warns editor

Evening Star editor Nigel Pickover has warned journalists of a growing "veil of secrecy" being imposed by emergency services.

Pickover has launched an official complaint against Norfolk constabulary after information about a five-year-old boy who died in a fire was not released until 11 hours after his death. And he has successfully challenged Suffolk fire brigade controllers' decision not to give out full addresses of fires, citing data protection legislation.

Suffolk fire service's decision came after the fire brigade in North Wales sent an alert to all brigades in England and Wales to inform them of data protection advice they had been given.

Communications manager at North Wales fire and rescue service, Gareth Watson, said: "Advice from the Information Commissioner's Office was that while we could give street names to the media, releasing the street number of a property would put us in contravention of the Data Protection Act, as it might lead to the identification of victims. "In this instance, the advice from the Office of the Information Comm-issioner was legal advice, and the service has chosen to uphold this in North Wales in the interests of the communities we serve."

However, the Evening Star and Suffolk county council checked the details with the Information Commissioner and had the decision overruled in the region.

Head of communications at Suffolk county council, Francis Thomas, told Press Gazette: "We sought further clarification from the Information Commissioner and the advice we were given was, yes we can continue to give full addresses, because addresses are not considered as personal data.

"What you can't do is give information about the people who occupy that premise, which is fair enough. I was pleased to be able to resolve this, and Nigel has received a letter now jointly signed by myself and the chief fire officers for the fire service in Suffolk explaining that. We have a shared interest in passing on information about where there are fires in the county, partly because it helps us keep the roads clear and helps reassure people that if the fire is at 34, not 36, then it's not their property at risk."

An ICO spokesman confirmed to Press Gazette: "An address can be personal data about the individuals who live there, so care needs to be taken about the circumstances where address details are released to enquirers. In judging whether an address should be released, a public authority needs to consider any likely impact on the individuals who live there. If there is no unwarranted detrimental impact then details may be released."

Pickover said: "We managed to get the ruling overturned in Suffolk — but it might well still be in force across the country. We have to stand up for freedom of information — even if there are those determined to keep us in the dark for their own purposes."

In the case of details of the five-year-old-boy killed in a fire not being released, a Norfolk fire brigade controller said she had been told by the police press office not to release any details of the incident, unless asked by a news organisation.

The press office explained to Pickover that "operational and moral factors outweighed the requirements of openness and accessibility", which had taken into consideration the family's wishes and the need to undertake a prompt investigation.

Pickover said: "The response is a smokescreen, hiding a very bad decision clearly intended to keep reporters away from the scene. "How can police decide on censorship citing moral grounds? The fire, in which there were no suspicious circumstances, was sad — but so is every tragedy. How many incidents have gone unreported so far and what moral grounds for censorship will be used at the next sad scene?"

The head of media services at Norfolk Police, Simon Morgan, said: "A press release had been prepared and was issued hours after the incident. Indeed a further press statement from the family, together with a picture of the young boy, was issued the following morning.

"It is unfortunate that both releases did not coincide with the Evening Star's deadlines and that other news outlets were able to report on the case. "The constabulary's head of media and the senior investigating officer for this case have offered to meet Nigel Pickover to explain this to him."

Pickover is now following up with a further complaint to the Norfolk police authority, and another to Home Secretary John Reid.

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