Making the most of freedom

January 1 2005 will be a special day for information. On that happy
morning, it will at last be free, in one bound, from the shackles that
have kept it locked away from its loved ones all those long, lonely
years. It will emerge, blinking into the warm winter

sunshine, ruefully rubbing the stubble on its chin, breathing deeply the sweet air of freedom and looking uncertainly about it.

And
then it will race round to the nearest newspaper office or magazine
publisher and, after a quick cuppa and a chat with the editor, will
leap onto the front page, from which dizzy vantage point it will soak
up the adulation of the masses. The public will gasp in amazement at
its rare beauty, and rage wildly at the sinister forces that have
ensured its internment for so many years. And, yea, the editor will
raise up his hands and give thanks for the number of extra copies
shifted as a result.

For many journalists – OK, for me – our
grasp of the Freedom of Information Act is, shall we say, a little on
the woolly side. They – I – know that it’s A Very Good Thing, generally
speaking, and that when it fully comes into force I should be able to
make hay with it, uncovering all manner of dodgy public authority
scams, tales of official wrongdoing and misappropriations of taxpayers’
cash. But as for the fine detailsÉ well, someone will tell me exactly
what to do when the time comes. Won’t they?

Fortunately, for the
likes of me, there are some clearer-thinking individuals around who are
considerably more tuned in to precisely what freedom of information
means for journalists – and, more importantly, to what they can do to
make sure it works to their advantage.

They know that around
70,000 official authorities are about to be forced – dragging and
screaming, most of them – into a new era of openness and accountability
in which they will have to publish details of the decisions they make
and the money they spend on the public’s behalf. Rather than having
vague ideas about what journalistic rewards this new era will bring,
they know precisely the sort of big stories that would benefit: the
handling of the foot and mouth crisis by the Department for
Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and the Army; rail crash
investigations; the Shipman case; the child organ scandals.

They
also know that a whole load of smaller stories for local newspapers and
business magazines may well emerge as a result of the act – from
companies involved in big defence contracts right down to the smallest
parish council.

But since the act wasn’t in place for any of
those stories, we’ll just have to let them pass and make sure we’re
ready for the information to come flooding through in 2005, right?
Wrong on both counts. One of those clear thinkers is Santha Rasaiah,
political, editorial and regulatory affairs director of the Newspaper
Society, who has been following FoI developments with her usual
thoroughness.

One of the most useful aspects, she notes, is the
fact that it is retrospective. “You will be able to get access to
information about the past that may have been denied to you at the
time,” Rasaiah says. “This might uncover new stories, or fresh
information about current ones. Don’t forget that this means you will
be able to mix and match information from local bodies and national
authorities or revisit past campaigns and stories that retain current
significance.”

Even though the full enactment is still more than
two years away, the next few weeks and months are crucial if
journalists are to ensure that we make the most out of it. The time to
act, it seems, is right now. That’s because, under the schedule, the
various public bodies covered by the FoI Act have to decide exactly how
they intend to follow the requirements of the act to publish more
information. Some of that information they will be obliged to publish
as a matter of course – without being specifically asked for it – under
what are called “publication schemes”. These schemes have to be agreed
by the information commissioner – the head honcho in charge of making
sure the act is complied with – in a matter of months, and journalists
have a great opportunity to influence them.

Colin Davidson,
managing director at Northcliffe’s Gloucester operation and editorial
adviser to the whole group, is another of the clear thinkers. Earlier
this month, he brought together senior editors from the far-flung
corners of the Northcliffe empire at a seminar to impress upon them the
importance of seizing the moment.

Many of those editors, not
surprisingly, have a healthy scepticism that people in public office
are suddenly going to start singing like canaries once 2005 arrives.
They’ve had to deal with too many of them for too long to believe that.
Look at the list of exemptions, they mutter – the get-out clauses that
allow authorities to refuse to disclose information on various grounds.

Many
editors, not surprisingly, have a healthy scepticism that people in
public office are suddenly going to start singing like canaries once
2005 arrives

That scepticism is mirrored by Maurice Frankel,
director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which has done so
much in recent years to harry the Government into finally introducing
an FoI Act. “There is the tap-and-bucket view that stories are suddenly
going to come pouring out of some official pipeline,” Frankel says.
“That is just not going to happen.” Instead, he reckons tooth
extraction is a better analogy – “and these people are going to be
fighting hard to keep their teeth in their mouths”. Nonetheless,
Frankel knows better than anyone the possibilities that the act opens
up. It means that the bodies covered have a duty to assist journalists
in their inquiries. Failure to comply with the act will be seen as
contempt and shredding documents will be an offence.

What
newsrooms must come up with, Frankel thinks, are new techniques. “You
will have to target your requests,” he says. “See where the pitfalls
are and change your approach accordingly. If you don’t get what you’re
hoping for the first time, don’t just say, ‘this isn’t working’.
Challenge the refusal and take it to the information commissioner. If
you don’t, the public is going to be cheated out of the stories that
they should be seeing.”

The Guardian’s Westminster correspondent,
David Hencke, has an excellent track record for extracting information
from the closed filing cabinets of the corridors of power. He has
already practised his FoI skills, both by making use of an existing
open government code of practice and by cunning use of FoI acts in
foreign countries. For example, The Guardian used the American Freedom
of Information Act to apply for documents from the US Ambassador’s
office concerning the death of Princess Diana. From these sprang
surprisingly frank details of his thoughts on the royal family and
senior government politicians. Good story.

Similarly, the Greek
FoI Act was used to obtain information about the Elgin Marbles, from
which it emerged the precious artefacts had been damaged by the British
Museum. Good story.

Similar ruses can be used locally if, say,
there is a US airbase nearby, or where a US company bids for a defence
contract, or when a local MP visits Ireland – which also has an FoI Act.

For
the UK, he reckons, the key is to “think laterally; use your
imagination. I think it will be better for regionals than for the
nationals,” he says. “Whitehall largely remains protected, but I think
they’ve hung the rest of the country out to dry because it’s not going
to be personally affecting the ministers.

“If you think about how
you handle it, you’ll get a lot of information. Go for the highest
common denominator. Cite precedents.” He gives an example of shaming
government ministers into declaring their spending on overseas trips
because the Royal Family was already doing just that. “So we were able
to say, ‘If it’s good enough for Her Majesty, surely it’s good enough
for Her Majesty’s ministers?'” Good story. The same will apply to local
officials under the freedom of information legislation, he says. If one
regional paper gets a good result using FoI, authorities in other parts
of the country are likely to have to follow suit. “You’ll be doing the
whole country a favour if you win one of these cases because it then
sets a precedent that will have to be followed.”

Police and
health authorities may be a more tricky prospect, he believes, since
exemptions will undoubtedly be used by them to keep more sensitive
stories under wraps. Even so, there will still be scope. Say you have a
case where a child dies during an operation and the professional
competence of an individual practitioner is called into question “With
a health service, you could do a double whammy if you have the parents
on your side,” Hencke says. “Get the parents to use the Data Protection
Act to find out the personal information from the hospital, and use FoI
yourselves to establish more of the facts.”

When it comes to
police forces, editors are at their most cynical about how easy these
fresh seams of information will be to mine. Even though the new act
will technically brush aside the 30-year rule on the policing of such
events as Hillsborough, the miners’ strike and the Brixton riots, they
remain sceptical of finding more information when they already find it
such a struggle to get details of simple road traffic accidents.

The
Northcliffe editors were probably not massively reassured on that score
by Chief Inspector Robin Jarman, whose responsibility it is to
co-ordinate the publication schemes of the various forces. Having
admitted at the seminar that certain forces were not quite as
co-operative as others, he was asked which ones were being least
helpful. “I’ve been waiting all day to say this,” he smiled. “No
comment.”

But perhaps even more of a challenge are the readers
themselves. “Mention Freedom of Information and a lot of your readers
will go into a catatonic state at the idea,” says Nottingham Evening
Post editor Graham Glenn, whose paper has an award-winning history of
exposing official secrecy.

The key, he believes, is to “make the
connection between secrecy and their lives”. For the Post, that has
meant stories such as discovering how a Nottingham lad caught malaria
in a local hospital, trying to find out how many Notts police officers
are Freemasons, and exposing the truth behind a secret plan to house
the country’s most dangerous paedophiles on the paper’s patch. He
thinks issues such as GM foods and the CJD outbreak will be obvious
areas on which FoI legislation could shed new light.

“The readers
need to know that they need your help. They need you to be a wise but
tough pal. The secret of success is to make your readers so angry that
they write half the paper for you.” And although it’s important to be
“as tough as hell on scams and the scamsters,” it’s equally vital to
give credit where it is due. “We have highlighted and emphasised
openness when it happens.”

One of the problems, as Society of
Editors executive director Bob Satchwell says, is that the public
doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. “Tell them it’s their money that’s
being wasted or misused. Humanise it, inject passion into it. Tell them
‘you’re entitled to know this’.”

The society has agreed to act as
a central point of contact for editors to share their FoI triumphs and
failures and to offer practical advice to those wanting to know what
steps they should be taking.

A further problem – but one that
should, at least in theory, be easier to solve – is that a certain
cultural change within newsrooms may be required. Many editors will
acknowledge that they don’t use enough of the other legislation already
at their disposal to obtain information. Although they’re aware of the
potential power that the FoI can offer them, they fear that it may not
be properly harnessed in the hurly-burly of getting their publications
out on tight budgets. It’s a fear that’s justified by the statistic
that under the Code of Practice on Open Government, introduced eight
years ago, just 5 per cent of inquiries have come from the media. If
similar statistics apply when the act kicks in, we’ll certainly be
short-changing the public.

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