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ICO conference 2012: Give journalists more access to personal data, argues barrister

Journalists should be granted greater access to sensitive personal data in cases where publication has a strong public interest under the Freedom of Information Act, a leading barrister told data protection officers today.

Robin Hopkins, a practicing barrister specialising in transparency, was speaking at the Information Commissioner’s Office Data Protection Officer Conference in Manchester attended by hundreds of staff from councils, central government, the NHS and private companies from Apple to Zurich Financial Services.

He identified a trend in decisions by information tribunals in deciding sensitive personal data should be given to reporters for publication where there was a public interest even where that same data would not be given to a member of the public.

“Journalists have a stronger hand to play at tribunal than they had even 18 months ago,” he said. Graham Smith of the Information Commissioner’s Office chaired the session and added: “The applicant blind element is starting to crack a bit and I don’t think that is entirely inappropriate.

Hopkins, from the law firm 11KBW and a blogger at panopticonblog.com, referred to the success of Ian Cobain of The Guardian in obtaining information relating to the prosecution of BNP leader Nick Griffin’s 1998 prosecution.

He pointed to the fact that Condition 10 of Schedule 3 of Section 40 (2) of the Freedom of Information Act triggers the Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000.

In the order “lawful processing” of personal data includes publication by a journalist where disclosure serves a “substantial public interest” and also “in connection with” issues such as “the commission of an unlawful act”.

The Freedom of Information Act states that public bodies must treat requests in a way which is “applicant blind”. However, this clause in the Data Protection act is recognised as an exemption.

Smith also told the workshop of data protection officers that there was nothing in the law preventing them from asking about the applicant if that was helpful, for example if they are a journalist, although they could not limit the information disclosed based on the answer.

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