Belfast Telegraph

Public interest versus privacy issue is a balancing act

By Paul Connolly

Sometimes getting a newspaper out can seem like a balancing act. Not just the time and resources needed to gather the news, but also the legal considerations before publication.

Media law, like many other areas, is often a balancing act, too; mainly about balancing competing rights, not least since the Human Rights Act came in 15 years ago.

The balance between privacy and freedom of expression is in sharp relief for editors in the wake of Leveson and as the UK's Information Commissioner sets about drawing up guidance on the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) as it relates to journalism.

The DPA regulates how information on people is stored and used and is designed to protect individuals from intrusion by state agencies, organisations and individuals.

There is an exemption in the Act – more a public interest defence, I suppose – for journalism, because of its important role in democracy.

Editors in Northern Ireland are occasionally hit with Data Protection Act claims, almost always folded into a privacy claim (sometimes from convicted criminals funded by – yes, you've guessed it – legal aid).

The Act does not define public interest, but I believe a free Press is a general public interest so that these journalistic exemptions should be widely framed.

These issues are not just theoretical, or nerdy; they are about real people, for example the 'naming and shaming' in the Mid Staffs hospital controversy and MPs' expenses.

Lord Justice Leveson, in his wisdom, has recommended sharp changes to the DPA to water down the journalistic exemption.

He suggests the subjects of news stories be permitted access to information journalists hold on them.

That would be disastrous and would destroy any form of journalism that seeks to go beyond the bland, never mind serious investigations.

The Ministry of Justice across the water is consulting on Leveson; I hope they blow that recommendation, and his others in this area, out of the water.

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham – recently caught in a stuchie with a parliamentary committee over publishing the names of blue chip companies linked to dodgy private investigators – is launching his own post-Leveson consultation.

The Commissioner is thankfully alive to the danger that he could inadvertently end up as a mini media regulator if this is not handled appropriately.

The UK will hopefully soon end up with an efficient and appropriate model for Press regulation.

The last thing we need is another layer of back-door bureaucracy.

@BelTelReadersEd

BTreaderseditor@gmail.com

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