UPDATE: 30.09.14 Sunday Mirror editor Lloyd Embley is reported by the BBC and other media outlets to have apologised for the use of women’s photos (it transpires that two women’s images appropriated), saying
We thought that pictures used by the investigation were posed by models, but we now know that some real pictures were used. At no point has the Sunday Mirror published any of these images, but we would like to apologise to the women involved for their use in the investigation
What I think is interesting here is the implicit admission that (consenting) models could have been used in the fake profiles. Does this mean therefore, the processing of the (non-consenting) women’s personal data was not done in the reasonable belief that it was in the public interest?
Finally, I think it’s pretty shoddy that former Culture Secretary Maria Miller resorts to victim-blaming, and missing the point, when she is reported to have said that the story “showed why people had to be very careful about the sorts of images they took of themselves and put on the internet”
With most sex scandals involving politicians, there is “the other person”. For every Profumo, a Keeler; for every Mellor, a de Sancha; for every Clinton, a Lewinsky. More often than not the rights and dignity of these others are trampled in the rush to revel in outrage at the politicians’ behaviour. But in the latest, rather tedious, such scandal, the person whose rights have been trampled was not even “the other person”, because there was no other person. Rather, it was a Swedish woman* whose image was appropriated by a journalist without her permission or even her knowledge. This raises the question of whether such use, by the journalist, and the Sunday Mirror, which ran the exposé, was in accordance with their obligations under data protection and other privacy laws.
The story run by the Sunday Mirror told of how a freelance journalist set up a fake social media profile, purportedly of a young PR girl called Sophie with a rather implausible interest in middle-aged Tory MPs. He apparently managed to snare the Minister for Civil Society and married father of five, Brooks Newmark, and encourage him into sending explicit photographs of himself. The result was that the newspaper got a lurid scoop, and the Minister subsequently resigned. Questions are being asked about the ethics of the journalism involved, and there are suggestions that this could be the first difficult test for IPSO, the new Independent Press Standards Organisation.
But for me much the most unpleasant part of this unpleasant story was that the journalist appears to have decided to attach to the fake twitter profile the image of a Swedish woman. It’s not clear where he got this from, but it is understood that the same image had apparently already appeared on several fake Facebook accounts (it is not suggested, I think, that the same journalist was responsible for those accounts). The woman is reported to be distressed at the appropriation:
It feels really unpleasant…I have received lot of emails, text messages and phone calls from various countries on this today. It feels unreal…I do not want to be exploited in this way and someone has used my image like this feels really awful, both for me and the others involved in this. [Google translation of original Swedish]
Under European and domestic law the image of an identifiable individual is their personal data. Anyone “processing” such data as a data controller (“the person who (either alone or jointly or in common with other persons) determines the purposes for which and the manner in which any personal data are, or are to be, processed”) has to do so in accordance with the law. Such processing as happened here, both by the freelance journalist, when setting up and operating the social media account(s), and by the Sunday Mirror, in publishing the story, is covered by the UK Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). This will be the case even though the person whose image was appropriated is in Sweden. The DPA requires, among other things, that processing of personal data be “fair and lawful”. It affords aggrieved individuals the right to bring civil claims for compensation for damage and distress arising from contraventions of data controllers’ obligations under the DPA. It also affords them the right to ask the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for an assessment of the likelihood (or not) that processing was in compliance with the DPA.
However, section 32 of the DPA also gives journalism a very broad exemption from almost all of the Act, if the processing is undertaken with a view to publication, and the data controller reasonably believes that publication would be in the public interest and that compliance with the DPA would be incompatible with the purposes of journalism. As the ICO says
The scope of the exemption is very broad. It can disapply almost all of the DPA’s provisions, and gives the media a significant leeway to decide for themselves what is in the public interest
The two data controllers here (the freelancer and the paper) would presumably have little problem satisfying a court, or the ICO, that when it came to processing of Brooks Newmark’s personal data, they acted in the reasonable belief that the public interest justified the processing. But one wonders to what extent they even considered the processing of (and associated intrusion into the private life of) the Swedish woman whose image was appropriated. Supposing they didn’t even consider this processing – could they reasonably say they that they reasonably believed it to have been in the public interest?
These are complex questions, and the breadth and ambit of the section 32 exemption are likely to be tested in litigation between the mining and minerals company BSG and the campaigning group Global Witness (currently stalled/being considered at the ICO). But even if a claim or complaint under DPA would be a tricky one to make, there are other legal issues raised. Perhaps in part because of the breadth of the section 32 DPA exemption (and perhaps because of the low chance of significant damages under the DPA), claims of press intrusion into private lives are more commonly brought under the cause of action of “misuse of private information “, confirmed – it would seem – as a tort, in the ruling of Mr Justice Tugendhat in Vidal Hall and Ors v Google Inc  EWHC 13 (QB), earlier this year. Damage awards for successful claims in misuse of private information have been known to be in the tens of thousands of pounds – most notably recently an award of £10,000 for Paul Weller’s children, after photographs taken covertly and without consent had been published in the Mail Online.
IPSO expects journalists to abide by the Editor’s Code, Clause 3 of which says
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information
and the ICO will take this Code into account when considering complaints about journalistic processing of personal data. One notes that “account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information”, but one hopes that this would not be seen to justify the unfair and unethical appropriation of images found elsewhere on the internet.
*I’ve deliberately, although rather pointlessly – given their proliferation in other media – avoided naming the woman in question, or posting her photograph