ICO – no Code of Practice for data protection and the press

On the 12th of August the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) announced that, following a period of consultation, it would not – contrary to previously-stated intentions – be issuing a Code of Practice on Data Protection and the Press. The proposed Code had been in response to Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations that the ICO produce

comprehensive good practice guidelines and advice on appropriate principles and standards to be observed by the press in the processing of personal data

As the ICO’s Steve Wood says in the blogpost

Leveson did not stipulate a code but we proposed it as a possible vehicle for the guidance

Indeed they did, stating at the time that it was not

the ICO’s intention to purport to set ethical standards for journalists, or to interfere with the standards which already apply under relevant industry guidance, such as the Editors’ Code of Practice, the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, and the BBC Producers’ Guidelines. Nevertheless, the existing industry guidance does not consider the requirements of data protection law in any detail, and the ICO’s code will complement existing industry standards by providing additional coverage of this issue

However, the latest announcement – that the ICO is “looking to produce a guidance document” rather than carrying through with the issuing of a Code of Practice – is accompanied by the publishing of a summary of consultation responses to the draft Code of Practice. In fairness to the ICO, those who responded appeared not to want a Code, and, as any public authority will be aware, a consultation in name only (e.g. one with a predetermined outcome) is unlikely to be a lawful one. We are not told specifically who these responses were from, but that they were from “several media companies, individuals, regulators and representative bodies” (although there were only 16 responses overall, a figure which perhaps shames us all, or, alternatively, supports a view that not that many people were particularly aware of or bothered about the consultation). Seven responses specifically rejected the idea of a Code of Practice, with some concerns being

a code of practice implies a new set of rules or regulations;
risk of the ICO becoming a ‘mainstream de facto regulator of the press’;
risk of a proliferation of codes; and
risk of potential confusion with existing codes such as the Editors’ Code.

After pausing to note that the now-proposed ICO guidance will apparently be issued in draft (for further consultation) before the end of the year, which is a long, long way from meeting Leveson’s recommendation that any guidance be implemented within six months of his report,  it might be helpful to look at just why some respondents might have been unhappy with a Code of Practice, as opposed to “mere” guidance.

As is well-known, there is a very broad exemption, at section 32, from most of the obligations of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) where:

(a)the processing is undertaken with a view to the publication by any person of any journalistic, literary or artistic material,
(b)the data controller reasonably believes that, having regard in particular to the special importance of the public interest in freedom of expression, publication would be in the public interest, and
(c)the data controller reasonably believes that, in all the circumstances, compliance with that provision is incompatible with the special purposes [emphasis added]

This, broadly, means that, as long as personal data is processed with a view to journalistic publication (note: not that it has to be published) it is exempt from effectively all of the DPA (although not the 7th “security” principle) as long as the press body “reasonably believes” publication would be in the public interest. This has generally been taken to mean that it will be extremely difficult for a data subject to enforce her rights against, or for the ICO to regulate the activities of, the press. And, indeed, instances of successful DPA claims, or successful enforcement, against the press, are rare (privacy cases against the press, where they have included DPA claims, have tended to see the latter sidelined or dropped in favour of meatier claims in tort – see e.g. Douglas v Hello [2005] EWCA Civ 595 (where the DPA claim did succeed in the first instance, but only resulted in nominal damages) and Campbell v MGN [2002] EWCA Civ1373 (where, by contrast, the section 32 defence succeeded)). As Leveson LJ says

the effect of the development of the case law has been to push personal privacy law in media cases out of the data protection regime and into the more open seas of the Human Rights Act [page 1070 of Leveson Report]

 As everyone knows, the press kicked back strongly against parliament’s proposal of a Royal Charter for the press (that proposed Charter itself being the result of a rowing back by the political parties from Leveson’s proposal for some form of direct statutory underpinning of any regulatory scheme (“Guaranteed independence, long-term stability, and genuine benefits for the industry, cannot be realised without legislation”)). Both proposed Charters (the parliamentary-backed one and the Pressbof-backed one ) are to be considered by the Privy Council.

What has perhaps not been so widely-known, or widely-understood was that an ICO Code of Practice, if it had been designated by the Secretary of State (by means of an Order pursuant section 32(3)(b) of the DPA), would itself have constituted a form of statutory underpinning. This is because a Code designated in this way could have been taken into account by a court, or by the ICO, when determining whether personal data had been processed (for the special purposes) by the data controller in the reasonable belief that it had been in the public interest. The now-proposed “mere” guidance will not have the same status.

This might seem a minor point, and perhaps it is (bear in mind that there are already other Codes of Practice designated pursuant to section 32(3)(b), including the Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice) but, although we don’t know specifically who responded to the ICO’s consultation, it is safe to say that those who did included in their number organisations strongly opposed to (and alive to the threat of) any form of what they perceive to be statutory regulation of the press.

In this post I draw heavily on previous posts by Chris Pounder, on his Hawktalk blog, and if, as he suggested earlier this year, the then-proposed ICO Code raised the prospect of enhanced protection for ordinary data subjects, it is perhaps the case that the dropping of the proposal means no such enhanced protection.

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1 Comment

Filed under Data Protection, human rights, Information Commissioner, journalism, Leveson

One response to “ICO – no Code of Practice for data protection and the press

  1. It’s always been obvious that the ICO lacks the will to enforce on the (admittedly limited) areas not covered by Section 32. This just confirms reality – they won’t be regulating in this area, so it’s more sensible to issue guidance that everyone can then ignore. However, given that it’s unlikely they’ll do much regulation outside security and CCTV anywhere else, it begs the question of what the point of the other Codes is.

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