How to Make FoI better

Gordon Brown’s announcements on press freedom have won him widespread praise from across the journalism industry.

Campaigners also paid tribute this week to Press Gazette for the part it paid in persuading the Government to think again on proposals which would have drastically watered down the Freedom of Information Act.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, one of a number of editors to lobby the Government in person against the changes, said: ‘This is a very welcome decision. Well done to Press Gazette for campaigning against it, and to all the editors and journalists who united to voice their anger at the Government’s proposals.”

The head of legal and regulatory affairs at the Newspaper Society, Santha Rasiah, said: ‘We are delighted that the Government has dropped its proposals to restrict FoI requests and to limit media access to the coroners’ courts, against which the regional press, other media and Press Gazette have campaigned so vigorously.

‘The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, adopted the Newspaper Society’s suggestion for a freedom of expression audit at the Home Office, and we are also pleased that he will now investigate the idea of a freedom of expression audit for future legislation.”

The director of the Society of Editors, Bob Satchwell – who vigorously opposed the fees regime from the outset – said: ‘We look forward to ministers leading the way to greater openness.

‘Feeding the public genuine facts and information rather than trying to spin them is the way for politicians and public bodies to win respect. This is a victory for the public and for common sense.”

The director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, Maurice Frankel, said: ‘We are delighted that not only have they decided to drop the proposed fees regulations, but that instead of restricting the Act they are now proposing to extend it by doing this consultation on bringing private bodies with public contracts within the scope of the Act.

‘I think the Press Gazette campaign has been very important. Press Gazette devoted a large amount of space to this, week after week, and has really driven home the message that Freedom of Information is extremely important to the press and that removing or undermining it would be strongly opposed and resented.”

Sunday Telegraph home affairs correspondent Ben Leapman said: ‘It is great news that Gordon Brown has listened to the representations from the media, the public and pressure groups and decided not to go ahead with these curbs on the public’s right to know.

‘The Government was clearly impressed by the way in which the national and local media, including Press Gazette, united in opposition to the proposed changes.

‘The fact that two thirds of public bodies who responded to the consultation supported the proposed curbs, even though they were clearly badly flawed, shows that FoI legislation has not yet changed the culture of secrecy which pervades parts of the public sector.”

The latest three-month consultation on proposals to curb the FoI Act elicited 324 responses – of which 236 were against. Some 69 public bodies were in favour of the new FoI fees, with 39 against.

The Tory MP and FoI campaigner, Richard Shepherd, said: ‘The campaign by Press Gazette and regional papers such as the Yorkshire Post has been of enormous importance.”

The FoI campaigner, journalist and author of Your Right to Know, Heather Brooke, was more sceptical about Brown’s announcement. She said: ‘It’s great to hear these words, but this Government has always been good on words. They said FoI was a waste of money, but they have already wasted money on useless consultations – and now they are having another one.”

Brooke said she would like to see the Association of Chief Police Officers and Network Rail included in the list of companies covered by the Act, but said that the Government had tried to add private companies ‘for years”, but failed.

Brooke praised Press Gazette’s campaign against the curbs, and said it showed ‘what journalists can do when they work together”.

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