Why we still need the man in the shabby raincoat

On The Press: Expect a mixed response to a report that condemns invasion of privacy
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The Independent Online

Reporters, for the most part, no longer fit the image of the investigative hack in a dirty raincoat gathering information. They have become more white-collar. But the publication last week of an official document from the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, reminds us that the twilight world still exists. Newspapers do get in touch with middlemen in pursuit of their inquiries, and the information they seek may challenge popularly held views about privacy.

Mr Thomas, whose statutory role is to promote public access to official information and protect private information, is campaigning for harsher custodial sentences for those found guilty of trading illegally in personal details. In his report to Parliament, What Price Privacy Now?, he provides a league table that shows how much the press have used suppliers of personal information. The results are based on an investigation - resulting in a conviction last year - into a private detective who sold to 305 journalists data extracted from police computers.

The league table, giving the number of transactions and the number of journalists involved, shows the Daily Mail at the top (952 transactions; 58 journalists), The People second (802; 50) and the Daily Mirror (681; 45) third. There are some, perhaps, unexpected titles in the list. The Evening Standard was involved in 130 transactions, all by the same journalist. Among the so-called serious newspapers are The Observer (103 by four reporters) and The Sunday Times (52 by seven).

Some surprising titles are on the list. We tend not to think of Woman's Own, Best and Closer magazines as investigative journals, and why the Daily Sport should need ex-directory phone numbers I have no idea.

None of the journalists dealing with this supplier of personal information was charged with any offence. But it does perhaps leave a taste in the mouth to learn that they deal with dubious agencies in their search for addresses, car registration numbers, telephone numbers and records and bank account details. Prices range from £75 for a phone number to £500 for a criminal record.

Protection for the individual is provided by section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998, with offences at present punishable by a fine. There is, however, a public interest defence the media can deploy if challenged. Those supporting statutory control of the press regard the expression "public interest" as mealy-mouthed, an undemanding justification for intrusion and other poor behaviour.

It is this same public interest concept that is deployed by the Press Complaints Commission, through which press self-regulation takes place. The PCC has its critics, some of whom describe it as toothless. I am in the larger camp that sees self-regulation as a vital defence against statutory regulation and an encouragement of higher ethical standards in journalism.

Mr Thomas and his report are part of the same process. Those of us who have concerns about the rise in data collection by the state can hardly be dismissive of the Information Commissioner's determination to root out the illegal gathering and sale of personal information. And while the public interest is a convincing defence for certain behaviour, it is a less convincing justification for using dubious means to acquire the text messages of celebrity philanderers.

The media still expose wrong-doing and abuse of power, and that is needed as much as ever. The media are covered by the same laws as the rest of the population. Editors will operate within the law or cite - and have to prove - public interest. And prison sentences will not affect their behaviour.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield