National newspaper editors join campaign to save Freedom of Information

Britain's national newspaper editors this week got behind Press Gazette's campaign to stop the Freedom of Information Act being watered down.

And with less than a month to go before the official consultation period ends on the Data Protection Regulations 2007, nearly 1,000 journalists have signed our petition opposing the move.

The changes to the way public authorities calculate FoI fees are expected to lead to an extra 17,000 FoI requests a year being turned down on cost grounds — irrespective of the public interest.

According to FoI campaigner Maurice Frankel, the new rules would mean "any penetrating requests are very likely to be turned down in future".

Alan Rusbridger
editor-in-chief, The Guardian

"The Guardian has used the FoI Act extensively since it came into force in January 2005. Our reporters have used it responsibly to uncover stories of clear public interest. We've written on the NHS, on lobbying by drugs companies, on carbon dioxide polluters, on the safety of nuclear plants, on the legality of the Iraq war, on BSE, on the closure of post offices, on safety issues on oil rigs, on corrupt payments by arms manufacturers… and so on and so on. "Nobody could call these requests irresponsible or time-wasting. They were legitimate enquiries by reporters on stories where disclosure served the public well — just the sort of thing the Act was designed to enable. It's truly shocking that the Government's trying to emasculate one of the better things it has done since 1997, and which Blair himself championed in opposition."

John Witherow (pictured)
Editor, the Sunday Times

"Freedom of information has been an important step for newspapers. It may not reveal blockbusting stories, but it has helped open up government. Many newspapers have benefited and some of the stories the Sunday Times has been able to publish include funding behind the city academies, details about MPs' expenses and food safety breaches in supermarkets. "But it is still far from perfect. We put in about 430 requests last year and about half were refused, citing cost or not being in the public interest. "We then have to go through the time-consuming task of appealing, which works only in a small number of cases. Even if successful, the story may then be out of date.

"The introduction of the new proposals would effectively neuter the bill. The most interesting requests we submit require a public interest test and it is exactly those requests they will be refusing on the spurious grounds of excessive costs. "These are bad proposals and I believe all journalists should oppose them."

Will Lewis
Editor, The Daily Telegraph

"The proposed new regulations must call into question Labour's commitment to the spirit, if not the letter, of the law that it brought in. "If the time taken by officials and ministers to consult on and consider requests is to be counted when calculating the cost of disclosure, this will push many requests above the notional £600 limit.

"This will most affect requests for the politically-sensitive information that is most in the public interest to disclose, since these will be the ones that ministers will want to involve themselves in personally.

"Arguably, this could be used to ration and limit requests for information that may have been granted before the Act, thereby making legitimate journalism more difficult, not easier. "It is hard to conclude anything other than that Labour has tired of its experiment in openness and wants to bring the shutters down again."

Mail on Sunday

"The FOI Act was a key New Labour policy committment. It is bizarre that the Government is now proposing to try to restrict its use by journalists.

"Since the Act came into force, Mail on Sunday journalists have used it to produce a series of public interest stories that would otherwise have remained where the Government and other authorities would doubtless have preferred them to stay — well hidden by layers of bureaucracy and official secrecy.

"The great benefit of the Act is that it forces the bureaucrat to justify keeping something secret, rather than requiring the journalist — or any other citizen —– to argue why it should be disclosed.

"In the past year alone we have published more than 20 stories which would have been near-impossible without information obtained by our own journalists or others under the Act. These include meetings between Lord Falconer and the US casino boss Philip Anschutz and how the US Government flouted international law to fly bunker-busting bombs through UK airports.

"Previously we used the Act to expose Labour peers' second homes expenses racket; how many NHS staff are carrying hospital superbugs and the £2,000 price of Tony Blair's official make-up."

Patience Wheatcroft
Editor, Sunday Telegraph

"It is outrageous that, having legislated in favour of freedom of information, the Government should now attempt to so restrict that freedom."

Jonathan Grun
Editor, Press Association

Grun said that stories uncovered by PA using FoI included huge variations in the way police forces deal with officers caught speeding and a dramatic surge in the robbery and theft of electronic gadgets, such as mobiles and MP3 players.

"There is no need for the introduction of these proposed regulations, each of which is clearly intended to undermine the functioning of the Act and to ensure that the Government is able to keep information from the public."

How you can help save FoI

1. Sign the petition
Add your voice to our petition by emailing your name, job title and organisation to dontkillfoi@
wilmington.co.uk
. Press Gazette aims to get the petition signed by every news organisation in the UK and will then present it to Tony Blair and Lord Falconer before the end of the consultation period on 8 March.

2. Respond to the consultation
Write to this address before 8 March:

Department for Constitutional Affairs Information Rights Division
6.16 Selbourne House
54-60 Victoria Street
London, SW1E 6QW

Fax: 020 7201 7777
Email: informationrights@dca.gsi.gov.uk
Remember to include your name, address, job title, the name of your organisation and whether or not you would like an acknowledgment of your response.

3. Follow Newspaper Society advice
Use your editorial sections to campaign against this change in the law. Urge your readers to respond to the consultation and write to MPs.

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