Newspaper editors warn ministers, new data law threatens freedom of expression

Journalists must be exempt from new data protection laws or there will be risks to freedom of speech, newspaper editors have warned ministers.

The editors of The Times, The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail have written to the justice and culture secretaries about a new code of practice jointly drawn up by the Information Commissioner.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has started consultation on a draft code of practice for journalists on the use of personal data.

The Data Protection Act 2018 requires the ICO to publish a statutory code of practice which journalists must follow. The editors said the proposed rules would limit what people say and write about in the public domain by treating any information held about a person on a digital device as personal data.

In a letter sent last week to Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Michelle Donnellan and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, the editors urged the government to exempt journalists from data protection laws, something they do in many countries are already there.

The editors say that Germany, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand already have legislation providing additional protections for journalists.

Under the proposed code, journalists would have to prove a “legitimate reason” for reporting on personal data, including facts already in the public domain.

The letter read: “The basic premise on which press freedom rests, that while individuals have a right to privacy in their homes and private lives, what they say and do in the public sphere may be reported, is limited by legal Subject to restrictions such as the laws of libel and contempt.

“It is enshrined in the code of conduct for editors, which most British journalists follow.

“The ICO Code turns this on its head. Personal data under the Code is any information about an individual that is stored on a digital device.

“This includes information that by its very nature is public – such as someone’s job title.”

The government is introducing a new Bill of Rights which it claims will give greater weightage to free speech in the law. Editors urged Raab, who introduced the bill, to use it to protect journalism.

They write: “There would be no better way than to use this legislation to free the UK’s otherwise free press from the shackles of data protection law.

“There is a serious danger that under the proposed Code no form of journalism will be immune from costly and time-consuming legal challenge.”

However, the bill has been delayed. The Times reported this month that Rishi Sunak had told Deputy Prime Minister Raab that he had “delineated” the law in favor of dealing with small boats carrying migrants across the Channel.


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