How to get the most out of the Freedom of Information Act

Journalist Matt Davis, of news agency John Connor Press Associates, told the Press Gazette Media Law conference how to reap a harvest from the FoI seeds you sow.

The introduction of Freedom of Information was responsible for the biggest change in the dynamic between reporters and ‘gatekeepers’of information.

We’ve been able to evolve away from a hunter-gatherer race waiting for a big-story beast to wander across our news savannah. Now civilised, we sow our FoI seeds and wait for them to sprout.

Firstly, you need to throw away your cynicism. People moan about the far-reaching tentacles of the state and extension of government meddling, but this only means that the data is out there for us to access all that government meddling.

Think of the story before you think of the question.

Don’t hit the authorities with lots of questions, but track back to who would allow you to write the story and how best you can get hold of that data. One way of doing this is to boil your story down to a headline; in this case, do put the cart before the horse.

Immerse yourself in the statistics and language of the organisation.

My question about bed-blocking was bounced back to me by a number of hospitals which said they didn’t know what I was talking about – and might I possibly mean ‘delayed transfer of care”? Likewise, on-the-spot fines are, in fact, penalty notices for disorder. The question needs to be asked in the language that the department understands, and you need to find out which department holds the information.

Will the data you want be releasable?

Here I have to advise people to always aim for the general rather than the specific. Although our instinct as journalists is to personalise, the one big handicap of the FoI is that information which is personal is not on the whole releasable. But we can overcome this by using case studies to personalise stories that are based on the generality of the statistics.

Avoid overcomplicating the question.

The best questions are short and simple.

Ask for comparative data to put your figures in context.

If you are likely to get a small number back, ask for a brief summary of each case. For example, when I asked local authorities about how much compensation they had paid to children in schools, the brief descriptions elicited the fact one kid claimed £6,000 compensation when a school gate fell on him as he tried to break in.

Ask for an index/chapter head so you can easily find what you’re looking for.

Try not to take no for an answer, too often anyway. When a public authority refuses something on the basis that it’s not in the public interest, I know that there’s something there. And I appeal.

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