Comment: Don't confuse Freedom of Information requests with investigative journalism

Something has been niggling away at me recently about the working practices of many, many of my friends in the trade press and on local papers – and even a fair few reporters on the nationals and telly.

It is something that at first seems a bit silly, and could easily have me labelled as miserable curmudgeon – but ultimately, I believe, points to a significant problem at the heart of modern journalism.

The gnawing feeling I’ve been unable to shake off is the thought that too many reporters these days confuse the use and management of Freedom of Information requests – and the endless back and forth with the Information Commissioner that often follows – for investigative journalism.

The lure of being seen to take on the man in a quasi-legal context, of revealing secret documents and of railing against “redactions” is often too much for inexperienced journalists to resist – especially when budgetary constraints mean they are too often desk-bound.

It also translates easily to the echo-chamber conspiracy theorists of Twitter.

What this new-style journalism sadly erodes is the all-important art of contact management: of building a reliable and sympathetic network who will share gossip and, ultimately, leak you information.

Watergate didn’t happen because the White House was threatened with sanctions from the Information Commissioner. And it never would have done.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a great believer in reducing the secrecy of officialdom, and the government being forced to publish its papers. But too often journalists these days are as expert in the details and mechanisms of FoI law as they are in taking a key contact out for one more pint than he or she might deem sensible.

Ultimately this is bad for democracy and for the fourth estate because the FoI Act gives officials the framework to delay and even deny the publication of stuff it doesn’t want to get out.

There is no such framework to stop the handing over of a brown paper envelope under a pub table.

Too often these days reporters spend their time arguing their rights with the Information Commissioner, when really what they ought to do is pick up the phone and dial another contact.

The author of this piece is a journalist working in a senior position in the UK media writing under a pseudonym.

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