In praise of whistle blowers

According to Magnus Linklater, if the new law on privacy goes through, "investigative journalists could go to jail while crooks walk free".

He is of the view that some curious steps are being taken to limit the scope of investigative journalism: "A government that has proclaimed itself firmly as a champion of free speech, introducing a Freedom of Information Act and appointing a commissioner to enable the citizen to penetrate the corridors of power, appears on the point of introducing a privacy law by the back door. "

According to Linklater the new law could prevent investigative journalists looking at personal data in pursuit of a public-interest story; deter whistle-blowers from revealing malpractice; and blow wide open the confidentiality that protects the journalist and his source: "The calculation is that, if these measures — jail sentences rather than unlimited fines for the misuse of private data — go through, at least one journalist a year could go to jail for breaches of Section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA)."

And Linklater thinks that the person behing the new law is the Information Commissioner: "the architect of this bureaucratic coup d’├ętat is the Information Commissioner himself, Richard Thomas."

The Department for Constitutional Affairs, under Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Lord Chancellor and advocate of freedom of information, recently completed a consultation process and published a document entitled Increasing Penalties for Deliberate and Wilful Misuse of Personal Data. According to Linklater this was the direct offspring of Mr Thomas’s earlier report to Parliament, What Price Privacy? "Both documents propose that anyone who obtains, holds or discloses “personal data” without the consent of the “data controller” should be sent to prison for up to two years rather than face an unlimited fine, as at present."

Linklater argues that the law as it stands is perfectly acceptable whereas the proposals would mean not only that journalists and whistle-blowers would be at risk of imprisonment, but that insurance investigators inquiring into fraud would be equally liable: "The bank clerk who suspects that an account may conceal a major drug deal; the secretary who stumbles on a cash-for-questions scandal; the civil servant who believes that there is corruption within a planning department — all these are legitimate areas for inquiry. Yet all these, under the proposed new penalties would not only be curtailed, they would also be ruthlessly punished."

Hands off whistle-blowers, we need them - by Magnus Linklater (The Times, 1 November 2006)

See responses: Freedom of information and personal privacy (The Times, 3 November 2006)