Reporters' Privacy and the Daily Media Call Summary

Kevin O'Donnell
2015-03-02 15:27

Last week a staff member in the City of Ottawa's communications department distributed the Daily Media Call Summary to everyone on the media distribution list, thus spilling to every reporter in Ottawa details about what many other reporters currently have in the hopper.

They tried to recall the email. I'm sure everyone who got a copy promptly deleted it. *cough*

City Hall reporters were not impressed, what with this being the fourth time in recent memory it's happened. The summary includes questions asked by reporters and sometimes contains detailed answers to those questions. 

I admit, the Daily Media Call Summary makes for great reading.

I have no skin in this game, but I imagine having the City tip off your competitors with information on what questions you're asking would be pretty frustrating. Worse still, having them share the answers to the questions must be maddening.

Whatever unspoken working relationship exists between media and the City's communications department (the only conduit to ask questions of staff), these disclosures obviously harm that relationship.

The City Manager responded quickly to complaints. An apology was issued. It's reasonable to assume there will be no fifth leak of the daily media call summary.

Yesterday the City’s Daily Media summary was mistakenly issued to the media list. As you know, this is not the first time this error has occurred. I would like to formally apologize. This is unacceptable and undermines the important relationship that we are working hard to develop with all of you. -- Chief, Corporate Communications

But I got to wondering if reporters enjoy any privacy rights. Did the City's distribution of personal information (reporter's names, their questions, etc) constitute a breach of privacy rights?

The City says no.

Via the very same department that dumped the call summary to reporters, I have received answers to several questions about what, if any, privacy reporters enjoy when interacting with the city. While I have never spoken to Rick O’Connor, the City Clerk & Solicitor, the following statements can be attributed to him.

Q. Does the release of reporter’s personal names violate any provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act or the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act?

No, The City relies on Section 2(2.1) of the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA) to find that names of and other information about individuals in their professional capacities does not constitute personal information for the purposes of the Act.

In addition, I note that various Orders of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario (IPC) have found that information associated with an individual in a professional, official, or business capacity will not be considered to be “about” that individual and therefore does not fall within the definition of personal information found in the Act.   Finally, I note that the IPC found in one Order that the identity of an individual who made a formal access to information request under MFIPPA in a business capacity was not personal information (Order PO-2649).

Section 2(2.1) of the Act, noted above,  is reproduced below for reference:

Business identity information, etc.

(2.1)  Personal information does not include the name, title, contact information or designation of an individual that identifies the individual in a business, professional or official capacity.

Same

(2.2)  For greater certainty, subsection (2.1) applies even if an individual carries out business, professional or official responsibilities from their dwelling and the contact information for the individual relates to that dwelling.

Q. If I placed an MFIPPA request for a copy of the email would the City’s MFIPPA office be obligated to blank out personal names under S. 14(1) exceptions after obtaining a copy from the communications dept on my behalf?

(NOTE: I meant "would the ATIP office blank out the names of the reporters", but my question was interpreted as "would my name be blanked out while worked on by staff". My bad. I may follow-up with an MFIPPA anyway to get the answer the long way around. Until then, Mr. O'Connor's answer is informative as a guide to how MFIPPA protects your identity regardless of what questions you ask, so I've left it in.)

Formal requests for access to information made under MFIPPA are processed by the City of Ottawa’s Access and Privacy Office (ATIP Office).  The practice of the ATIP Office is that the identity of the requester is not disclosed internally to staff unless the disclosure of the identity is required in order to retrieve the responsive record, or to otherwise process the request.  

I note that disclosure of the requester’s identity is not usually required where the request is for access to general records of the City (i.e. records that do not contain an individual’s personal information). Therefore, if your request was for access to a general record, your name would be removed from the request as the request is circulated internally for processing purposes. 

Q. If the answer to either 1 or 2 is yes, is the City obligated to proactively report on instances where it violated a person’s privacy.  If yes, to whom, and on what frequency?

In the event that an individual’s personal information was disclosed in any manner unauthorized under MFIPPA, the City response would be guided by the IPC’s Privacy Breach Protocol.

As answers go, the straight up "No" is categorical.

Within the IPC's protocol are these steps; to be taken if the City determines a privacy breach has taken place:

  • ensure appropriate staff within your organization are immediately notified of the breach, including the Freedom of Information and Privacy Co-ordinator, the head and/or delegate;
  • inform the IPC registrar of the privacy breach and work together constructively with IPC staff;

From Mr. O'Connor's response it's clear the City would not have engaged that protocol in this instance, since the City does not consider distributing the Daily Media Call Summary a violation of privacy.

But I bet making an MFIPPA on all communications between the City and the IPC, or between staff and the City's own Freedom of Information and Privacy Co-ordinator, could lead to a story.

This rabit hole never ends and is fascinating.

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