New data law poses threat to free speech, newspaper editors warn ministers

Journalists must be exempted from new data protection laws or there will be risks to freedom of speech, newspaper editors have warned ministers.

The editors of The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail have written jointly to the justice and culture secretaries over a new code of practice drawn up by the information commissioner.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has begun consulting on a draft code of practice for journalists on the use of personal data.

Under the Data Protection Act 2018 the ICO is required to publish a statutory code of practice that journalists must follow. But the proposed rules would limit what journalists say and write about people in the public arena by deeming any information held about a person on a digital device to be personal data, the editors said.

In a letter sent last week to Michelle Donelan, the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, and to Dominic Raab, the justice secretary, editors urged the government to exempt journalists from data protection laws, something that they say many countries already do.

Germany, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand already offer such provisions in law as additional protection to journalists, the editors say.

Under the proposed code, journalists would have to prove “lawful reason” in order to report on anything deemed personal data, which includes facts already in the public domain.

The letter reads: “The fundamental premise on which press freedom rests is that while individuals have a right to privacy in their home and private lives, what they say and do in the public arena can be reported, subject to a limited range of legal restrictions such as the laws of libel and contempt.

“This is enshrined in the Editors’ Code of Practice, to which the vast majority of British journalists adhere.

“The ICO code turns this on its head. Under the code personal data is any information about an individual which is stored on a digital device.

“This includes information that is by its nature public — such as someone’s job title.”

The government is bringing forward a new bill of rights, which it claims would give freedom of speech greater weight in law. The editors urged Raab, who is introducing the bill, to use it to protect journalism.

They write: “There would be no better way of achieving that than by using this legislation to exempt Britain’s otherwise free press from the shackles of data protection law.

“There is a serious danger under the code as proposed that no form of journalism will be immune from expensive and time-consuming legal challenge.”

However, the bill has been delayed. The Times reported this month that Rishi Sunak had told Raab, the deputy prime minister, that he had “deprioritised” the legislation in favour of tackling small boats taking migrants across the Channel.

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New data law poses threat to free speech, newspaper editors warn ministers