Despite the recent cutbacks which his department has seen over recent months, ITV Westcountry editor Graham Smith is passionate about the way FoI has enabled his journalists to investigate local news stories.
For the past two years the current affairs team have made considerable use of the Act and the suggestion that FoI may be watered down is one Smith describes as a “disgrace”.
Smith told Press Gazette: “It [the proposed amendment] is a complete disgrace and they should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
“The Freedom of Information legislation had been the Labour party’s longest ever election promise. Labour first promised a Freedom of Information Act back in 1974. They had the opportunity to bring it in between 1976 and 1979 and did not do it. “It took them five years of Blair being in power before they even got round to thinking about it. “It got watered down and watered down and now they are trying to roll back on it even more.” In the year that FoI was brought in, Smith was the current affairs editor and in charge of a small department of five journalists whom he encouraged to brainstorm the sort of ideas that would be an ideal hunting ground for FoI applications. The first session alone resulted in around 30 different stories that would be useful and the team diligently wrote off to the various Government departments.
A Daily Mirror front-page exclusive about a crew that mutinied on the HMS Trafalgar triggered one of ITV Westcountry’s successful requests.
The newspaper reported that the crew had mutinied saying that the vessel, a Devonport-based nuclear submarine that had collided with an island off the coast of Scotland, was a “coffin ship” and wasn’t seaworthy.
Prior to FoI, ITV had requested the “snag sheet” from the MoD which listed all the defects on the vessel, but the request was turned down. However when Smith asked for same information under FoI the request was granted.
Smith said: “We were able to apply a before and after test to the Ministry of Defence response. Before FoI their response was just to tell me to bugger off. “After FoI, without any fuss at all, they handed over the snag sheet, which was a list of about 2,000 defects.
“When it finally came out it did not reflect badly on the Ministry of Defence. It just highlighted their obsession with secrecy beforehand.”