This post was written by Nick Tyler.
The closure of the News of the World, the best-read Sunday newspaper in the English language, is a stark illustration of the reputational and commercial damage that can result from privacy-intrusive practices carried out in the name of ‘investigative journalism’.
The UK’s phone-hacking scandal, which has been rumbling for years, blew up this week after it came to light that it was not just public figures and celebrities that were targeted but ordinary people (and their families) who were the victims of crime, terrorism and war. Such egregious and unconscionable behaviour saw an advertising boycott by companies which will result in the last edition of the newspaper this Sunday carry no commercial advertising.
Ultimately, for the newspaper’s owner Rupert Murdoch, the reputational price proved too high as the scandal’s effect threatens the share price of News Corporation International as well as their multi-billion pound takeover of BSkyB in the face of universal public outrage.
As the criminal investigation finally gets into gear, with arrests of high-profile figures expected and a public inquiry ordered by the Prime Minister, it is worth noting that the UK’s data protection regulator, the Information Commissioner Christopher Graham, this week reminded everyone that over five years ago his office (the ICO) first brought to light the unlawful trade in personal information with two special reports to Parliament, What Price Privacy?’ and ‘What Price Privacy Now?’ .
When first publishing these reports the ICO pressed for the strongest possible sanctions for those found guilty of the most serious criminal offences under UK data protection law. Those representations resulted in a power to change the law (see section 77 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008). This power would enable the penalty for breaches of section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998 to include custodial sentences. However, it has not yet been exercised by the UK Government.
On the back of the latest scandal the Commissioner this week called for that power to be exercised. We can expect that call to become stronger and louder over the coming weeks and months.