Privacy and Journalism: How does it work?

Just put it on the news. Just get it said. Let everyone know what’s going on……

They’re the sorts of things people say to me on a daily basis, but as a journalist with a duty of care to both my contributors and to viewers, and as someone who abides by the laws of the land, there are a myriad of issues I deal with when it comes to protecting people, property and data.

On a day to day basis, the simplest of all is protecting my sources. I regularly have people tip me off about stories, about events, about things they’ve heard, and I then use my journalistic skills to research and back up what I have been told. But, at all times, protecting my sources is key.

They’re so protected, in fact, that I don’t share details of my sources with even my own editor. It matters to me, too much. That, in turn, relies on my editor trusting what it is I am telling them about the story in question.

But there can be much more profound issues of privacy.

Profound issues of privacy

I have, on numerous occasions in recent years, reported on stories linked to historical child sexual and physical abuse.

I have interviewed victims of such crimes and need to protect their identity entirely while also getting them to appear on camera so I can document a first-hand account of their experiences.

This means filming them from unusual angles to mask their physical appearance, sometimes adding a blur effect in the edit for extra comfort, and often changing their voice or commissioning an actor to re-voice their words, again to protect their identities.

There are also issues around ownership of content. If something has been posted on a Facebook or Twitter page, do I have the right to use that content? Is there a public interest defence in not asking for permission beforehand? Where is the right to know an intrusion into privacy? Some of the questions and incidents are actually clear-cut and easy to fathom, others are more nuanced and require careful, though often speedy, consideration.

Access to information

Beyond that, I regularly delve into the territory of access to information and Freedom of Information legislation in my interaction with public bodies. Where I may believe said body has a duty to publish data, they may consider exactly the opposite. Where I might expect their default position to be openness and transparency, their response may actually be to militate against that and to delay and obfuscate and resist publication.

There are clear times when what I do is simply considered ‘fair access’, such as filming in an open and public space. It is reasonable for me to film and report on whatever I see in public. But what about children arriving at a school gate? What about when I am on the grounds of the hospital?

I am used to considering these issues on-the-fly, and can make a judgement call using my experience and instinct. But it is also helpful to, occasionally, stop and consider the reasons behind the decisions I am making to ensure they also tally with the law.

How am I handling data? Where do I store the details of my contacts and who could or should I share them with, if anybody? And does that expectation of protection and privacy for a citizen in their own home apply to an elected official or senior public sector figure? Again, they’re not always black and white answers.

It’s all why being able to delve into the rich library of content from the Jersey Office of the Information Commissioner is helpful to me, and why all professional people and organisations should have an active understanding of their rights and their responsibilities.

Myths and distractions

But, I also firmly believe, the all-too-common defence of “I can’t tell you that because of data protection” should be challenged on the many occasions it is deployed when it is clearly untrue.

It has become a lazy and uneducated response, and does a disservice to all those who work hard to uphold these laws and promote better understanding of them. It also creates confusion and a raising of suspicions on the part of the public who sometimes think that data protection laws are being used deliberately to prevent people from having access to information that should be in the public domain.

For me, for now, it’s back to preparing my next news story. And, with a good understanding of issues of privacy, I feel well-equipped to continue to shine a light in dark places and help keep you informed.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Jersey Data Protection Authority (including the Jersey Office of the Information Commissioner) (the "Authority"). The Authority is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the guest writer/bloggers and the Authority accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.


*JOIC welcomes suggestions for future blog topics. Have you got a suggestion? Please email