Reporter's FoI victory puts spotlight on art spending

By Dominic Ponsford

A news agency reporter has won a landmark courtroom victory against
the Information Commissioner which could force public bodies to reveal
how much they spend on art.

In December, a director of Sussexbased John Connor Press Associates,
Matthew Davis, became the first journalist to take a rejected freedom
of information request to the ultimate appeal – a public hearing of the
Information Tribunal.

This week the tribunal ruled in his favour,
a decision which Davis said will make it harder for any public body to
refuse FoI requests on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.

It
marks the end of a year-long search for answers from Davis, who
represented himself against a barrister for the Information
Commissioner.

He first tabled his FoI request in January 2005 to
find out how much the National Maritime Museum paid for an art
installation called Continuum, a huge “wooden, spring-like structure”
by Conrad Shawcross.

After the request was rejected he took it to
appeal and finally went to the Information Tribunal, the Information
Commissioner’s own watchdog.

Davis pressed on with his appeal – even though the museum “spontaneously”

revealed in June that it had paid £13,000 for the artwork – because he was keen to set a precedent.

According
to Davis, the FoI commercial confidentiality exemption being claimed by
the museum could be used by any public body as an excuse not to reveal
how much it paid for just about any goods or services.

“This decision is an important landmark in the short history of the Freedom of Information Act,” he said.

“It
means any public body wanting to hide its financial dealings from
scrutiny will have to put up a much stronger case if they want to keep
things secret.”

Davis hopes the ruling will speed up his other
FoI appeals, which include the amount paid by the National Portrait
Gallery for a video by Sam Taylor-Wood of David Beckham sleeping and a
rumoured £300,000 pay-off for the outgoing chief executive of East
Sussex NHS Trust.

He said delays in the appeal process allow
bodies such as NHS Trusts to “use flaws at the Commissioner’s office as
a get-out clause”.

He added: “The Information Commissioner is
taking so long to reach any decisions it’s making a mockery of the act.
I think the Information Commissioner has been taken by surprise at the
complexity of some of the questions that have been asked.

“At the
moment I don’t think the Information Commissioner in England has been
up to the job and that’s why there is such a massive backlog.”

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