Newspapers, television and radio stations and other media organisations are responsible for large amounts of personal data, including people’s names, contact information and other details used by journalists when preparing news stories.

While the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) contains a provision that can exempt personal data processed for journalistic purposes, there are still expectations that the media will handle information in an appropriate way.

Want to find out what information a media organisation holds about you?

You have the right to make a written request for a copy of the information that is held about you, including information held by the press and other media organisations. This is known as a subject access request.

Do they have to provide the information?

If it is possible for the media organisation to provide you with the information, they should do so.

However, there is an exemption in the DPA that allows a media organisation to refuse to comply with your subject access request if providing the information would undermine journalism.

How does the exemption work? Does it mean that media organisations don’t need to comply with the DPA?

The exemption, sometimes known as the ‘special purposes exemption’, seeks to protect freedom of expression in journalism, art and literature. It is very broad in its application. 

However, it does not provide automatic exemption, and in each case the data controller (eg the media organisation) must be able to justify their actions in the public interest. In addition, the processing of the personal data must only be for journalism, and it must also be undertaken with a view to publication of the journalistic material. The media organisation must also be able to demonstrate how compliance with the DPA is incompatible with journalism. The exemption can be applied to material held before and after publication. As well as an exemption from subject access it also exempts the organisation from most of the obligations in the DPA.

Think your information is being processed unfairly?

If you remain concerned about the way a media organisation has handled your personal data or responded to your subject access request then you may wish to report your concerns to the ICO.

We recommend that you also consider taking your concerns to the appropriate independent industry body who can consider complaints about media organisations. Currently there is no single industry regulator with responsibility for all media organisations so you will need to check whether the media organisation concerned is covered by such a body. If it is not covered by an industry body you should contact the media organisation itself directly in the first instance to raise your concerns.

Examples of independent industry bodies you can complain to include:

Help with taking a case to court

Section 53 of the DPA allows the ICO to provide further help to individuals who are taking a case to court, if their case is about how a media organisation has used their personal data. We may help by providing you with formal legal advice or representing you in proceedings.

We can only provide legal help to individuals in limited circumstances. The following conditions must be met:

  • The legal proceedings must relate to personal data which was used for the purposes of journalism, art, or literature. The ICO is not able to provide legal help if the personal data was used for other purposes.
  • The legal proceedings must relate to an organisation’s compliance with the DPA. The ICO cannot provide legal help on other laws (for example, a claim of libel).
  • The ICO can only provide legal help on a matter of substantial public importance. This is likely to be a case where there has been, or is the potential for, a serious breach causing substantial damage or distress to an individual, or where the outcome of the case might have a significant impact on the interpretation of the DPA or other laws.

It is up to the ICO to decide whether to accept a request for legal help. We expect that only a small number of cases will be eligible. If you want to request our help, please contact us and explain why you think that your case meets the above conditions. Your letter or email should say clearly that you are asking for help under section 53 of the DPA.