FoI is becoming a natural part of the job

I am currently involved in an argument with the Information Commissioner because he does not think taxpayers should have the right to know the identities of those entertained at our expense by regional development agencies.

The case has now moved on to the Information Tribunal and I await news on when we might get a verdict. There is no great rush, as it is already more than two years since I sent my original Freedom of Information (FoI) request, asking for details of my local quango’s corporate hospitality activities.

Delay, as readers of this publication will be well aware, is the cause of frequent complaint about FoI in the UK. Delay is particularly infuriating for journalists working to deadlines, of course, so it is not surprising to find some editors feeling ‘a bit disillusioned with the FoI Act”, as Computer Weekly’s Tony Collins told Press Gazette (24 August).

Happily, not all requests get bogged down in a swamp of bureaucratic obfuscation, inertia and back-watching. In contrast to the wading-through-treacle pace of this particular request – I remind myself that it’s a marathon not a sprint, but, still, two years – some other organisations have given me information more or less straight away.

Public bodies have been responding to journalists’ FoI requests in good, bad and indifferent ways, but we shouldn’t give up because of the recalcitrant authorities or departments.

A huge amount of formerly secret information has been released into the public domain since the Act came into force in January 2005, resulting in a stream of stories in both regional and national media.

Using FoI is becoming a natural part of a journalist’s job, which means it has to become an established part of journalism training. Increasingly, it is. Journalism students at Sheffield, for example, have already prised information out of a range of organisations covered by the Act, including:

The police force that revealed the number of violent incidents involving bouncers at every nightclub in a city, broken down club by club.

A high-security prison that handed over a list of contraband items taken from inmates, which included mobile phones and newspaper cuttings featuring stories about staff at the jail.

The local authority that passed on its health and hygiene inspection reports from food takeaways in student areas.

A university that complied with separate requests for details of its vice-chancellor’s expenses and for information on items staff had confiscated from students during exams.

These and other successful requests were from novice users of the Act, yet several resulted in stories being published, showing that FoI is not just for investigative specialists. It is a tool for all reporters, because it might provide an angle on virtually any story you can think of.

Educationalists call it ‘inquiry-based learning”, but using FoI is simply becoming one of the ways in which journalism students are taught to do the basic task of our craft, which is to ask questions. There is no guarantee of success, but one thing is for sure: if you don’t ask, you won’t get.

Tony Harcup is the author of The Ethical Journalist

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