Free data?

Today sees the birth of data.gov.uk, a resource which will no doubt inspire some high-quality journalism over the coming months and years.

But for all the fanfare surrounding this innovation, it’s worth bearing in mind that the government is also currently contemplating whether to kill off of a source of public information that is essential to journalism, and to open society.

Take a look at this document on the Justice Department website – it is Jack Straw’s consultation document on the future of the Edited Register – that’s the publicly available electoral roll to you and me.

Journalists up and down the land use this resource in their day to day work. It is essential toward finding out more about people, and for getting in touch with people in the news. It is used to verify the authenticity of people who come into contact with the media; whether whistleblowers with tip-offs, those who provide UGC, the authors of letters to the editor, and even participants in and contributors to live broadcasting.

Despite the option to opt out which has reduced numbers considerably, the electoral roll remains the only easily available official means of verifying people are who they say they are, which the media need to ensure the legitimacy and representativeness of our news.

So why are the government proposing to do away with it?

A quick glance through the proposal document tells you all you need to know – killing the electoral roll will address (many years too late it could be argued) those marketers who exploit public data in scattershot campaigns.

The report identifies many organisations presumed to have a vested interest in this issue (see pages 10–11) but browsing down this list of professional bodies, government departments, quangos and NGOs there isn’t a single media entity in there. How does the government think the media gets in touch with the public – via osmosis?

Just as many a blogger will be pondering what data.gov.uk and a future of linked data will mean for public accountability, let’s consider how journalistic newsgathering may develop after the electoral roll is taken offline.

Managing contacts: Little black books and online contact databases will get more and more out of date as numbers change and people go ex-directory (and so disappear from directory enquiries – whether hardcopy or online).

Establishing the facts: Journalists dealing with breaking news will struggle to establish authenticity where they can’t get in touch with interested parties. This will almost certainly add to the circulation and ‘churn’ of unverifiable news, with no means of other journalists verifying the truth further down the line. It will mean journalists will have to rely more on people coming to them with ‘news’, rather than being able to proactively seek out, assess and establish what is ‘news’ for themselves. This will lead to an even greater reliance on the views of those with loud voice, and an agenda to push.

Investigative journalism: Without a means of piecing together the movements of people over time (via historical data – often available since 2001), it will become very difficult for investigators to establish exactly who it is they are trying to track. The police (if they so choose) will become the only means by which journalists can verify who is who, and where they have gone. Given the fourth estates’ responsibility to scrutinise all areas of the state, and given the meteoric rise in state surveillance, this situation would challenge the legitimacy of our democracy.

Rights to and representation within the news: The media in a pluralistic democracy is supposed to provide a means of expression for the views of everyone in society. If the electoral roll is switched off, there will be no means of getting in touch with those who have no significant public profile. Some in society will effectively be disenfranchised from the news production process.

Unsuitable alternatives: If journalists can’t rely on official publicly available information, there are plenty of alternatives online. But as has been shown many times over the years, there are serious problems inherent to journalists relying on social networks, including:

  • Hoax accounts, which are ten-a-penny, and some of which can be fairly sophisticated. Even innocent dummy accounts can cause confusion – as The Express found out last week.
  • Widespread confusion over what is ‘public’ and ‘private’ space online – which can lead to serious lapses in judgement. Earlier this week The Sunday Times was censured for intrusion into a Facebook users’ grief. Do we really want to see more of this?
  • A significant number of people in the UK are not online, and will likely never be online – including many older people. Again, media’s duty to represent the widest range of opinion will be limited.

Late last year we saw public outrage at alleged phone hacking at The News of the World. If the government removes one of the few remaining legitimate sources for seeking out members of the public, we risk forcing journalists into illegitimate means of gathering contact information. We may see the rise in a black market of personal information which will put strain on privacy provisions within the Data Protection Act.

In short this could be disastrous for the future of news, and for the future of our democracy.

So how do we get around this problem?

It seems to me the answer may lie somewhere between options 4 and 6:

Option 4: Retain the Edited Register, but impose restrictions in legislation on who can purchase it and for what purposes.

Option 6: Improve guidance for the public about the Edited Register.

If the government insists on depriving the fourth estate of access to this information in order to curb cold calls and junkmail, some other provision must be made available. At present access to the full register is only permitted to members of the public ‘under supervision’. This is clearly an unacceptable stipulation for a free press, and would have to be changed.

If government insists on killing the edited version of the electoral roll, they will have to factor in how journalists will ensure the legitimacy and representativeness of our news.

All eyes on you Jack.

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