ICO must disclose Motorman journalists’ names

The ICO has been ordered to disclose the names of some of the journalists referred to in “What Price Privacy” as having engaged the services of rogue private investigator Steve Whittamore

In April 2006 the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) published “What Price Privacy?” on what it described as “the unlawful trade in personal information”. The report revealed

evidence of systematic breaches in personal privacy that amount to an unlawful trade in confidential personal information

Those breaches were potential criminal offences under section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), and the report – which drew on the findings of documentation seized during Operation Motorman, arising from the activities of private investigator Steve Whittamore, said

Among the ‘buyers’ are many journalists looking for a story. In one major case investigated by the ICO, the evidence included records of information supplied to 305 named journalists working for a range of newspapers

In December 2006 the six-month follow-up report “What Price Privacy Now?” was published. This gave further details about the 305 journalists mentioned in the first report, and broke the data down into “Publication”, “Number of transactions positively identified” and “Number of journalists/clients using the services”.

And of course, this trade in personal information formed the basis of the first module (“The relationship between the press and the public and looks at phone-hacking and other potentially illegal behaviour”) of part one of Lord Justice (as he was then) Leveson’s inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.

In 2011 a request was made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) to the ICO, for (1) “the number of transactions per journalist of each of the 305 identified journalists for each of the 32 identified publications” and (2) the journalists’ identities. The first request was refused by the ICO, on the basis that it would require a search through 17000 documents, and, therefore, section 12 of FOIA provided a statutory cost limit which meant it did not have to comply. Having been given these apparent facts the requester dropped his first request, but pursued the second. This was also refused, on the basis that the information was exempt under section 40(2) and section 44 of FOIA (the latter by virtue of the statutory bar on disclosure at section 59 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA)), in both cases because disclosure would be an unfair and unlawful disclosure of personal data of the journalists involved.

Because the ICO is the regulator of FOIA, a complaint about its handling of a FOIA request falls to be determined by the same office (a statutory arrangement which was to be described as an “unusual, and unsatisfactory, feature” of the law by the First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) (FTT)). Accordingly, the office (describing itself as “the Commissioner”, as distinct from the “ICO”, which was the authority refusing the request) issued a Decision Notice which held that

the ICO correctly withheld the information by virtue of section 40(2). He has also found that the information could also be correctly withheld by virtue of section 44(1)

This decision was appealed to the FTT, which has today, after what has clearly been complex and strongly argued litigation, handed down three judgments (1, 2, 3) (two of which were preliminary or interim rulings, publication of which has been held back until now) which are, taken together, extraordinary, both for their criticism of the ICO, and for the outcome.

Taken as a whole the judgments find that, regarding some of the journalists named in the information held by the ICO, the balance of the public interest in receiving the information outweighs the legitimate interest of an individual to protect his or her privacy.

The FTT found that the information wasn’t sensitive personal data (which is afforded a greater level of protection by the DPA). This is at first blush rather surprising: section 2(2) of the DPA provides that sensitive data will be, inter alia, “data consisting of information as to…the commission or alleged commission by [the data subject] of any offence”. However, the FTT found that, although the information

does contain evidence that the investigator [Whittamore] engaged by the journalist committed, or contemplated committing, criminal activity. And, self-evidently, it discloses that the investigator received some form of instruction from the journalist. But there is no suggestion…that the journalist had instructed the investigator to use unlawful methods or that he or she had turned a blind eye to their adoption or, indeed, whether he or she had in fact expressly forbidden the investigator from doing anything that was not strictly legal [para 11 of third ruling]

The FTT had also invited submissions from the parties on the significance to the instant case of some of the passages from the Leveson inquiry, and, having received them, took note from those passages of

the issues of impropriety (which, while very possibly not involving criminality on journalists’ part, is nevertheless serious) and corporate governance in the context of the privacy rights of the [journalists]. We believe that, together, they give rise to a very substantial interest in the public knowing the identities of those who instructed the investigators [para 18 of third ruling]

But also tending towards favouring disclosure in the public interest was Leveson’s suggested criticisms of the ICO

We also give some weight to the public interest in knowing more about the information which was in the possession of the ICO and which the Leveson Report suggested it failed adequately to pursue [para 18 of third ruling]

The FTT noted the interests of the journalists, for instance that they would have had an expectation that details of their day-to-day professional activities would remain confidential, and that the Commissioner had argued that

publication of information indicating that they had engaged the services of the investigators concerned would be so unfair as to outweigh the factors in favour of disclosure [para 19 of third ruling]

but the FTT also noted, in effect, that the journalists involved must have had some idea of what was going on when they engaged Whittamore

it must have been well known within the profession what types of information could be obtained with the help of investigators, even if the means of obtaining it were not fully understood. The rights of individuals under data protection laws would also have been widely known at the time. In those circumstances those engaging the particular services…should have known that they ran the risk of becoming involved in behaviour that fell short of acceptable standards. This seriously dilutes the weight to be attributed to their privacy rights and leads us to conclude that the balance tips in favour of disclosure [para 19 of third ruling]

Accordingly, and, unless there is an appeal (Iwould be surprised if there isn’t) the names of some of the journalists who engaged Whittamore must be disclosed.

Other matters – criticism of ICO

In its preliminary ruling (November 2012) the FTT makes some trenchant criticism of the ICO’s handling of the requester’s first request (even though, as the requester did not pursue it, it was outwith the FTT’s jurisdiction). The refusal on costs grounds had been made, based upon a statement that the information requested had not been recorded in a database. Yet less than two months later the Leveson inquiry began, and, at that inquiry, evidence presented by the ICO effectively, in the FTT’s view, contradicted this statement

 we do not understand how the Appellant could have been given such a misleading response to the First Information Request…as a result of the misleading information given to the Appellant, he was not able to pursue his request…We only became aware of the ICO’s error after the Appellant drew our attention to the evidence presented to the Leveson Inquiry regarding the Spreadsheets. We assume (and certainly hope) that those in the Commissioner’s office handling this appeal had not become aware sooner [para 28 of first ruling]

The ICO clearly did not take well to this criticism, because the second interim ruling records that

the Commissioner has complained about part of the decision which he believes includes unfair criticism of his office and has asked us to correct the impression given [para 3 of second ruling]

but the FTT stood firm, saying

We continue to believe that our criticism was justified. The Appellant was told that he was wrong to assume that any database of information existed that could be interrogated…However, it is now known that the ICO held the Spreadsheets at the time…[and although the information in them] may not have provided the Appellant with precisely the information he requested, but it would have come close. Against that background we believe that the ICO was open to criticism for asserting, without further qualification, that it would be necessary to search through the 17,000 documents in order to respond to the request. [para 6 of second ruling]

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5 Comments

Filed under Confidentiality, Data Protection, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, Information Tribunal, journalism, Leveson, Privacy

5 responses to “ICO must disclose Motorman journalists’ names

  1. Your thoughts about implications from the apparent conflict of interest re Commisioner cf ICO?

    • As the FTT says – it’s an unfortunate feature of the law. I’m not sure it’s generally hugely problematic, because a) in my experience, the ICO is very careful to observe the internal barrier the anomaly throws up, and b) in terms of fairness and appearances of fairness, the free and relatively simple right of appeal to FTT means independent scrutiny is readily accessible. As an example of a) see the slight kicking the ICO gave itself in this decision notice.

      I don’t think the anomaly has ever been challenged directly in the FTT, or higher courts, but it would be interesting if it ever is.

      • Lee

        The issue with the anomaly is one of those rare cases where a regulator falls within its own regulatory regime and there isn’t much that could be done other than set up a differing regulatory process for the ICO. Not really sure what the solution is as I doubt the ICO gets sufficient complaints about its own FOI processes to justify the expense.

      • Agreed, although I think they get a fair few…

  2. Pingback: Making Motorman names public | inforightsandwrongs

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