Only a change in ethos will quell our FoI anger

The Lion’s Den award of the week goes to deputy information
commissioner Graham Smith, who ventured into the Society of Editors
conference session on freedom of information.

It was not a comfortable experience.

Nine
months after the act became law, too many editors have tested the FoI
system and found it wanting. And although much of their ire is directed
at public bodies who have clearly not come even close to embracing the
spirit of the act, they found in Smith a focus for their anger.

They
queued up to supply their own examples of where FoI had let them down,
not just in the initial request for information, but also in the
complaints procedure.

Steve Lowe, editor of Bedfordshire on
Sunday, read out an email he’d obtained about one of his own requests.
“Tell them the documentation is too detailed. They’ll soon lose
interest.”

Meanwhile, the backlog of cases waiting for a
complaint to be resolved by Smith’s department is at 1,200, with 50 new
ones arriving per week. When you consider the number that have been
dealt with since January is just over 50, editors are justifiably
querying what the 28-strong department is doing with its time.

Maurice
Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, reckons
it’s very nearly reached the point where journalists will stop using
the complaints procedure entirely.

Heather Brooks, author of Your
Right to Know, summed it up perfectly. In order to find out how big the
backlog was, she had to submit a formal request under – you’ve guessed
it – the FoI Act. She was told that such data “wasn’t really in the
public interest”.

The director of public prosecutions, Ken
Macdonald, had a far more enjoyable experience at the hands of the
editors. But then he was conveying a message that should represent a
significant breakthrough for them: that their journalists should be
given access to far more material from prosecution teams.

The key
point is that at all times there should be a presumption that the
information should be released unless there is a very good reason not
to.

Macdonald deserves great credit for such a change in ethos.
There are plenty of others who could learn from his enlightened
approach to the public’s right to know.

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