Retreat on new press data law

Legislation against media use of private information stalls

Reports have emerged that new legislation aimed at preventing misuse of private information by private detectives and the media has lost the support of the government.

The new legislation sought to introduce much more severe penalties for the unlawful appropriation of personal data, such as tax or health information or telephone records. Hitherto unlawful usage of personal data in journalism attracted fines which did not prevent continued data theft. Section 60 of the Data Protection Act currently provides for fines on conviction, of up to £5,000 on summary conviction and unlimited on conviction on indictment. The new proposals introduce penalties of imprisonment of up to 2 years. 

Representatives of the media are reported to have lobbied the government against the introduction of further penalties. Those backing the bill, such as the Information Commissioner, allege that Fleet Street, amongst other sectors, has made regular use of unlawfully obtained personal information. The practice also received criticism in a recent book by a practising journalist exposing malpractices within the media.

The legislation was introduced in the wake of the conviction of a tabloid journalist for tapping a member of the Royal family’s mobile phone and high-profile data losses within the public sector. The legislation is intended to prohibit trade in private information and the Information Commissioner has stated that there will be a defence for journalists with ‘reasonable belief’ they are acting in the public interest.