Citizen bloggers to get new protection to investigate public scandals

The Information Commissioner is to put bloggers on the same footing as professional journalists allowing them to gather information on individuals and public services without fear of being challenged under the Data Protection Act.

 I am indebted to this article on the excellent Inforrm blog today which reveals that the Information Commissioner has put out new guidelines to the media for consultation.

The proposals are particularly important after a series of outrageous attempts notably by Barnet Council to force local bloggers to have to register with the Data Protection Act. The aim was to force people to register so council officials and councillors could demand to know what information was held on them. Luckily they failed. This change will make it impossible for councils like Barnet to even contemplate such action.

The relevant parts -outlined in the proposed guidelines- are to exempt journalists and bloggers from the requirement to provide such information if  they are pursuing a story in the public interest.This exemption allows journalists to mount a public interest defence to most apparent breaches of the Data Protection Act but it will be easier to rely on the exemption.  This states:

  • As long as the aim is to publish a story (or for someone else to publish it), all the background information collected, used or created as part of investigation can also be exempt,
  • The  proposed rules also allow bloggers as well as journalists – if they were forced to hand over information- to redact any information which could lead to the source being identified..
  • Information about someone’s health, sex life or criminal behaviour should only be collected if the journalist is very confident the public interest overrides their right to privacy.

These changes along with the new Defamation Act should be welcomed by everyone. It amounts to official recognition that the world is changing and that public bodies, whether it be your local council, hospital, or, as is increasingly the case, private companies running public services that they should expect to be heavily scrutinised. It also serves as a warning to directors of private companies, arrogant councillors, and insensitive public providers, that they will not be able to bully active citizens who want to probe their activities and they will not be able to force the disclosure of sources or information that led to their exposure. consultation on the new guidelines from the ICO ends on April 22nd.

Lansley’s outrageous ban covering up risks in his NHS reform

Today the information commissioner publishes his findings to Parliament on the outrageous veto by Andrew Lansley in preventing publication of the NHS risk register.(see – report here )

The health secretary would have us believe that the public and the press are so naive that they must not be seduced in his words  by ” sensationalised reporting and debate ” of its findings.

In other words this is all right from Cabinet ministers and senior officials to read all the risky details  of his reforms – but the public must be treated like children, not capable of understanding the issues. What patronising piffle!

What I really suspect is that Mr Lansley does not want the public to read the full facts – something that when in opposition his Cabinet colleague, transport secretary,Justine Greening, rightly disagreed when it came to the risks of building a further runway at Heathrow.

But now in government it is of course all different, no one must know the real consequences of Mr Lansley’s decisions. I am delighted that Chris Graham, the Information Commissioner, stood firm on this one.

 But I suspect this decision is all part of an attempt by the government to row back on freedom of information. It fits in with Lord O’Donnell’s claim that if this goes on – it will have a chilling effect on discussion. The establishment both in the form of Jack Straw, Tony Blair and now Andrew Lansley, would love a world where we all lived in deference to ministers and senior civil servants.

No doubt charges for FOI will soon follow. Frankly if the government is planning to revert to a closed society, there is one simple solution. The risk register must be leaked.