Case sets worrying precedent for journalists' contacts

The court in the case between journalist Junior Isles and his former employer PennWell Publishing (Press Gazette p1 22 June) recognised an important distinction between personal journalistic contacts that are updated and kept separately from those that are used in the course of employment.

The disputed list had not been exclusively provided to Isles at the start of his employment.

It was effectively a hybrid of contacts which he had gathered and maintained himself from material brought with him when he started his new job and other contacts which were built up during the course of, and for the purposes of, his employment with Pennwell.

In this case, the contact details included telephone numbers and email addresses that had been stored on a company email system.

The judge did not accept that the contact list was something that could be thought of as personal to Isles, such as a private address book, which had been selectively added to, and maintained for, the purposes of his career rather than as part of his job.

The judge recommended that employers should generally ensure that a clear email policy regarding ownership of contact information be provided to employees. This would ensure that journalists understand what information will remain the property of the employer after their employment has ended.

However, the judge did acknowledge that had the disputed contact list been kept separately, in the form of a personal address list, to which journalistic contacts had been added for career purposes rather than employment purposes, he would have concluded that Isles was entitled to develop and maintain such a list.

In practical terms, the judge’s decision means that journalists need to ensure that contacts they bring with them to a new company are preserved and that they will be entitled to retain them when they leave.

The judgment highlights the importance for journalists to be aware of any terms in their employment contracts or company email policy relating to the use of contact information brought with them and subsequently developed in the course of their work. There may be express provisions that restrict the use of information once the journalist has left that employer.

Journalistic contacts developed before starting with a new employer and obtained other than as part of that employment should be kept separately. This could be done either electronically in a spreadsheet file, such as Excel or the old fashioned way in a hard copy private address book.

The judgment suggests that on leaving an employer, contact details incorporated into the work database, for example in an email system such as Outlook, and that were used in the course of that employment, might reasonably be held to be the property of the employer.

The judge accepted if it could be shown that information consisted of either private family contacts or journalistic sources from the journalist’s previous resources, then they should be entitled to them.

The distinction between personal journalistic contacts and those made while working for an employer is clearly an important one that reinforces the need for journalists to keep contact lists separate to avoid ownership battles

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