The Newspaper Society has issued a strongly-worded attack on Government proposals to water down Freedom of Information legislation and pledged support to Press Gazette’s campaign to save the FoI Act.
On 19 March, the Government is proposing to pass into law rule changes which will give public authorities new powers to turn down an extra 17,000 FoI request a year on cost grounds alone – irrespective of the public interest.
Press Gazette is urging every news organisation in Britain to respond to the consultation before it ends on 8 March, and sign our petition opposing the move.
Newspaper Society political, editorial and regulatory affairs director Santha Rasaiah explained the implication.
‘The Government is deliberately sabotaging its own freedom of information legislation, knowing that the proposals will curb requests from journalists, campaign groups, researchers and MPs.’She added: ‘Central government and local public bodies will be able to refuse to give information with impunity, simply because they think it would take too long for them to decide and consult on whether the requester does indeed have a right to it, or because they decide that it is reasonable to add together all the time taken to deal with all the requests from the same organisation or company or individual.
‘That means that any local newspaper company could be restricted to just one request every three months to the local authority, local health trust, or other public body. ‘The Government talks about the need to find a cost balance. Yet the government’s independent review said there was no information about the volume of requests and costs incurred by any public bodies outside central government in answering journalists’ FoI requests. ‘It estimated that the total cost of answering such requests was around £1.4 million. Regional and local newspapers’ FoI requests have led to their readers being informed about cracks at the local nuclear power station, MRSA infections in the local hospitals and local school kitchens’ failure to meet health and safety standards. ‘Regional and local newspapers must guard the rights of their reporters and readers to such information. The Government has been forced to consult, but it intends to lay the regulation almost immediately after the close of the consultation.
‘It is very important that the proposals are strongly and publicly opposed. Editors are publicising the effects of the proposed changes and raising the issue with politicians in their constituencies. I hope that all editors will be campaigning hard on this.’Manchester Evening News editor, and Society of Editors chairman, Paul Horrocks, also backed the Press Gazette campaign this week.
He said: ‘The Government opened the floodgates on information and now they are trying to close the gates and you cannot do that.
‘It is now part of the democratic process that we rely on and the public should be able to see what reporters find with it.’He stressed that is was not just newspapers that would suffer if the Government’s plans to curb the Act went ahead. ‘It will be more difficult for everyone if this happens. We should oppose it for the sake of our readers, viewers and online viewers.”