The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has been caught trying to “bury” a negative news story.
Internal emails at the ICO, the transparency and Freedom of Information (FoI) watchdog, show that staff discussed delaying the publication of a story to “a day when it looks like a busy news day”.
The emails were related to the outcome of a complaint made by privacy group, Privacy International against the CCTV website Internet Eyes.
The ICO found Internet Eyes in breach the Data Protection Act, and made it sign an undertaking in June to address the privacy concerns raised. However, Privacy International was unhappy with what it felt was a weak response from the ICO, and made a FoI request for all of the internal emails related to the decision.
The emails showed that staff anticipated a negative reaction to the story, and David Smith, deputy commissioner and director of data protection, was advised to “bury” the news.
“It has occurred to us that the ICO may not wish this release [the Internet Eyes undertaking] to stand out from the crowd – maybe it would be better to send the letter today and publish Wednesday or Thursday this week to ‘bury’ it among others?” lead case officer Diane Slater wrote in one email dated 7 June.
ICO press officer Kirsty McCaskill, agreed: “Yes, we would ideally not want this to attract much publicity but as Privacy International is the complainant this is no easy task.
“Will do our best to try to pick a day when it looks like a busy news day out there but – as you’ll appreciate – this is difficult to predict.”
Meanwhile, another email reveals that some ICO staff were wary of the discussion taking place.
“On a general point of caution, I think it is possible that we will get FOIA requests for our deliberations on this issue extending to the decisions surrounding timing of publication and which may include information not subject to FoIA exemptions. I may be being over cautious here, but I think we all should bear that in mind when deciding on the language we use in our email traffic between us in case it is misconstrued and then misrepresented by any third parties,” Jonathan Bamford, head of strategic liaison, wrote.
However, Information Commissioner Christopher Graham said that the ICO acted with "complete integrity" in the matter of Internet Eyes.
“We published the results of our enquiry on 14 June with a full news release. Given the complainants’ long track record of media stunts misrepresenting the ICO’s actions, it is perhaps understandable that there was consideration of the presentational issues around the publication of the undertaking we had secured.”