Journalists can request information from peoples’ private email accounts and mobile phones following new guidance issued last week.
The Information Commissioner has stressed that information held in private accounts can be subject to Freedom of Information law if it relates to a public authority’s official business.
For example, a journalist may ask a local council for information on dangerous potholes. They would normally expect to receive minutes, background papers and reports on the subject.
But the Cabinet member for highways may have emailed officials about the issue, and some of them may have left messages on his mobile phone about it. This information would have to be made available under the FOIA as well.
So journalists may find it beneficial to include a line like this in their FOIA request letter:
‘Please also provide me with any information that applies to this subject, that is held in members’ / officials’ private email accounts and other electronic messaging systems.’
The IC has urged authorities to set up procedures to ensure private emails, audio recordings and text messages on mobile phones are included when information requests are received.
He has warned public officials they can be prosecuted if they conceal or delete information.
Communication between a councillor and a constituent will not usually be covered, as it is political business.
The IC’s guidance is a clarification on what the law says already, since there has been confusion in the past.
Cleland Thom is consultant and trainer in media law.