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ICO Plans Press Code Of Practice After Leveson Pressure

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe's Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

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Following Leveson’s criticisms of the PCC effort to guide the press in following data protection law, the ICO is called in to take the reins

The UK’s privacy watchdog has set to work on a fresh “code of practice” for the press, which will help media organisations keep in line with the Data Protection Act, it emerged today.

The move follows recommendations from the Leveson Inquiry, which, throughout 2011 and 2012, looked into extensive phone and computer hacking by press organisations – in particular by News International publications.

TechWeekEurope understands the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) will be coordinating to some extent with the PCC on the code, even though Leveson criticised both in previous collaborative efforts to produce data protection advice for the press.

As with other government-related bodies, the ICO does not have to follow Leveson’s recommendations, but it appears to be doing so anyway.

Better data protection advice for press

The ICO will be asked to produce a considerably more detailed document than the last one it helped create, which was written up by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and lambasted in November’s Leveson Report for lacking teeth.

It noted there were just three pages of guidance for press bodies to take heed of, and pointed to a lack of effective communication between the PCC and the ICO.

“On no level could it be suggested that this guidance note was part of a strategy either to condemn unlawful data use or to warn the industry of the risks that it might be running,” the Leveson report read.

“On the contrary, if anything the guidance note tends towards reassuring the press that there are sufficient exemptions for journalistic activity to mean that they need not even think about the issues.”

Leveson also noted the PCC took over 16 months, from the date when former information commissioner Richard Thomas and ex-chairman of the PCC Sir Christopher Meyer decided to produce guidance, to issue the formal advice on data protection law.

Current information commissioner Christopher Graham (pictured), a former BBC journalist himself, told Leveson the ICO had not been asked by government to play a significant role in overseeing the use of personal data by news providers.

When quizzed by Leveson last year, Graham said: “So far as I am aware, the PCC did not go any further than producing general, high level guidance on journalism  and the Act at the time and we have not received any further approaches to discuss such guidance during my time in office.”

Meyer had claimed he had not received enough evidence of criminal activity from the ICO to warrant a more aggressive approach in the guidance.

ICO getting power over the press?

Despite previous difficulties in working alongside one another, the ICO will collaborate with the PCC in drawing up the press code of practice, a spokesperson told TechWeekEurope. “It will [largely be] laying out what the law says.

“The ICO is looking to develop a code of practice, consulting with the industry as we would do in developing any of our codes of practice.

“There isn’t a timescale for this yet, and to some extent this will depend on the feedback from trade associations and other interested stakeholders.”

According to a 2013-2016 strategy document from the ICO, which is now up for consultation, no date has been set for the release of the document. Leveson said it should be prepared and implemented within six months from the date of the Report’s publication.

The ICO has been granted no specific powers over the press, but if a body is seen using personal data for non-journalistic purposes, the privacy watchdog can issue a penalty of up to £500,000.

The ICO was dragged into the phone hacking scandal in 2011, when police asked for files from Operation Motorman – an investigation run by the ICO in 2003. Operation Motorman focused on private investigator Steve Whittamore, and the thousands of alleged requests sent to him from journalists hungry for personal information, such as criminal records.

But the Leveson Inquiry claimed there were failings in the aftermath of the Motorman case, especially in the subsequent advice handed to press bodies. “As a whole, the industry response to Operation Motorman, led by the PCC, replicated the pattern of disinterest, intransigence and inertia with which the industry has historically met criticism,” the report read.

It appears power over the press is being wrested from the PCC and handed out to other bodies, with the ICO getting lumped with much of the responsibility. Leveson also advised Ofcom should be given greater regulatory control over media organisations.

The ICO is due to issue a formal response to the Leveson Report early this year.

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