Privacy in the age of Data Journalism (3) – Ofcom and the PCC


Like all other public bodies Ofcom allow journalists to circumvent all of its strict rules on broadcasting private information if the argument for public interest outweighs the right to privacy.

Details of a person’s home or family, even if they just happen to be caught up in a larger event, can be published or broadcast if it is warranted in Public Interest and if:

“The means of obtaining material must be proportionate in all the circumstances and in particular to the subject matter of the programme”

A recurring term in my posts so far has been ‘Public interest’. If you have a strong enough ‘public interest’ argument, it seems that you can publish and publicise more or less anything (business documents, medical records, stained blue dresses) and be acquitted of breaking any privacy infringements.

But a definition of public interest is exactly what has been missing from all these rules and regulations so far.

This is because public is famously hard to define – and it is often confused with public curiosity by many of the national tabloids when publishing lurid details of the rich and famous’ sex lives.


Despite its debatable failings the PCC has actually stepped up and had a go at defnining this illusive subject, and it is to this I now turn.

According to this PCC code ‘Public Interest’ includes, but is not limited to;

i) Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety,

ii) Protecting public health and safety,

iii) Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organization.

iv) There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself and,

v) The journalistic activity undertaken with a view to publication, would be in the public interest

Meeting this criteria is also enough to not only justify the extraction of private information stored by public bodies; but also any great act of un-consensual intrusion into privacy, covert photographing and publishing of personal information according to the PCC’s own Editor’s Code.

This code is a far from satisfactory definitions of public interest. Instead they give a flavour of what they consider to be public interest.

This being said the PCC code is THE benchmark definition used in Data Protection legislation we covered in the last blog post.

Click here for my quick check-list of things to keep in mind when writing any story that flirts with the area of privacy legislation.


About Sam Francis

Freelance journalist. Former MA Investigative Journalism student at City University, London. Lover of data, admirer of information, seducer of computers.
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