Nóirín O’Sullivan requests data held on her by key media bodies

Former Garda commissioner seeks files from RTÉ, ‘Irish Times’ and ‘Mail’ under GDPR

May 19th, 2016: Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald addresses the Dáil in relation to the ongoing fallout surrounding Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan and the O’Higgins report into alleged Garda malpractice.

 

The former Garda commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullivan, has sought all information held on her by a number of major media organisations under European Union data protection rules.

Faced with the request, RTÉ has told some of its journalists that all of their email records are being examined by the State broadcaster’s data protection officer.

However, the National Union of Journalists has expressed concern about RTÉ’s action, saying that they were “concerned by the broad sweep” of the request from the former commissioner.

In addition, the NUJ’s Irish secretary, Séamus Dooley, said he believed RTÉ journalists’ emails should not be examined by the station’s data protection officer. An initial review should be carried out by senior editors.

Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan: determined to create a Garda force that other police organisations around the world would look to as the example of best practice. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Former Garda commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The former commissioner has also made the same request for data records to The Irish Times and the publisher of the Irish Mail and the Irish Mail on Sunday.

The requests come against a background where she has lodged defamation proceedings against the Irish Examiner and the publisher of the Irish editions of the Times and Sunday Times.

Journalistic purposes

It is understood The Irish Times and the publishers of the Mail titles told Ms O’Sullivan in August that any information processed about her for journalistic purposes is exempt from the provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

While RTÉ may in time give her a similar response, it has decided that it must first collect the relevant data held on its IT system and then decide what elements of it are covered by the journalism exemption.

Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee on Thursday. Screengrab: Oireachtas TV
Former Garda commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee in 2015. Screengrab: Oireachtas TV

In a recent message to a number of journalists, the broadcaster’s data protection officer, Judith Fanning, has said that as a result of Ms O’Sullivan’s request, “RTÉ is now obliged to request that IT conduct the necessary search of your RTÉ email account for any records that exist relating to Nóirín O’Sullivan and we wish to let you know that this will be taking place. Please note that you do not have to do anything.”

As the search to be conducted includes all documents in electronic and hard copy form, “we need to ask you if you hold any records” on certain RTÉ platforms “or in hard copy form”, the message said.

The reason for Ms O’Sullivan’s data request to RTÉ, The Irish Times and the publishers of the Irish editions of the Mail, is not known.

Charleton tribunal

The commissioner has recently taken defamation actions against the Irish Examiner and the publisher of the Irish edition of the Sunday Times. Those cases are understood to be linked to the coverage of matters concerning Ms O’Sullivan and Sgt Maurice McCabe.

The Charleton tribunal, which investigated matters linked to the McCabe affairs, is expected to publish its report next month.

Ms O’Sullivan could not be contacted. It is understood she may have written to other media outlets too, but this could not be confirmed last night.

The GDPR permits people to access information about them held by an organisation on computer or in a structured filing system.

However, the right of access is subject to a number of exemptions, including where the information has been given in confidence and the recipient has a legitimate interest in receiving the information. Journalists also have a separate, general right to protect the confidentiality of sources.

A spokeswoman for RTÉ said all data access requests under GDPR “are directed to RTÉ’s data protection officer who reviews them against [RTÉ] procedure including circumstances where the journalism exemption may apply.”