Reporters unlock the secrets of FoI

The
Freedom of Information Act is proving a useful tool for newspapers
seeking to hold their democratic representatives to account, Paul
Francis discovers

WHEN Deputy Prime Minister
John Prescott set in train his plans for a town hall revolution back in
1997, he promised it would usher in an era of greater openness and
accountability in local government.

But as any journalist familiar with the model of cabinet government
that now operates in most councils knows, the government’s promise
proved something of an empty one. Not for the first time, the political
rhetoric failed to match the reality.

Local and regional
newspapers quickly discovered that rather than doors opening, they were
being shut and reporters were being locked out. Worse, it appeared the
much-hyped reforms had handed councils the opportunity to manage and
control the release of information in a way that had previously not
been possible.

But in one of those curious accidents of timing,
just as Mr Prescott was steering the Local Government Act 2000 through
Parliament and imposing cabinet structures on councils, another piece
of legislation was beginning its long journey onto the statute books.

It
took five years to come into force, but there are signs that the
Freedom of Information Act is enabling the local and regional press to
lift a few stones and shine a light into the darkest recesses of town
halls.

From stories about murky property deals to councillors’
trips abroad that cost tens of thousands of pounds, the Freedom of
Information Act has given journalists a tool that means that their job
of properly holding to account organisations that spend millions of
pounds of public money is becoming a reality.

What is
particularly striking is that, of the many stories emerging through
FoI, very few, if any, would have been based on information from
cabinet meetings, agendas or reports. And tellingly, precious few have
been down to councils themselves grasping the openness agenda.

For
many, this is where a key strength of Freedom of Information lies.
Rather than relying on what councils push out in press releases or what
emerges from council meetings, journalists are shaping the agenda and
exploiting the act to determine what will interest their readers.

Paul
Durrant, assistant editor of the Eastern Daily Press, says: “One of the
big pluses is that it is allowing us to shape the news agenda much
more, rather than – literally – relying on what is in council agendas.”

Editors
and reporters at the EDP are encouraged to regard FoI as an integral
part of their job, rather than some kind of optional add-on.

“On
a daily basis, we are constantly reviewing whether there is an FoI
angle on stories. And to be honest, sometimes even just a threat to use
FoI flushes out the information we want,” he says.

That view is echoed by Darren Thwaites, editorial development manager for Trinity Mirror Regional.

“Staff
are now asking, ‘what is it that we – and our readers – want to know?’
and making requests they think will generate the information. Asking
the right questions is crucial but, if you do get it right, the
successes can be spectacular. Newsrooms are thinking much further
ahead.”

Trinity titles all have “FoI champions” and regular reviews of how FoI can be applied is standard practice.

It
is a strategy used by Kevin Booth, editor of the Evening Press in York,
who says newspapers are missing a trick if they fail to do the same.

“FoI
should become a fundamental part of the way all of us conduct our news
gathering operations. It has enabled us to put into the public domain
stories that would never have come to us before.”

One of the key
lessons to date is that while FoI can sometimes be a frustratingly slow
process because of the 20 days public bodies have to respond, the wait
is often worth it, generating stories of genuine public interest rather
than the propaganda churned out by press offices.

Frequently, the
information disclosed throws up enough for comprehensive backgrounders
and spreads, in addition to shedding light on a particular story.

Occasionally,
the angle the journalist takes will change entirely as a result. Either
way, FoI stories are proving far more revealing than the standard
council comment often served up to reporters seeking a response to a
local controversy.

Several papers have, for example, used FoI to
“name and shame” dirty restaurants, pubs and bars, simply by asking for
inspection reports from council environmental health officers.

Requests
asking for financial information that councils might previously have
withheld have also been a productive area. Stories about car parking
charges, the costs of consultants, pay-offs to senior officials and
travel trips have all been successfully teased out using FoI.

It
has not, of course, all been plain sailing. Onearea of concern is the
status of quangos or council organisations that operate as
“arms-length” commercial companies.

While many of these are
self-evidently organisations with a public role – often spending vast
sums of public money – many are proving reluctant to accede to FoI
requests and are claiming to be exempt from the Act.

When the
Liverpool Echo and Liverpool Daily Post began to probe the amount of
money that was being spent on various European Capital of Culture
projects, some of the relevant quangos claimed to be exempt.

Chris
Walker, Trinity Mirror’s north west regional managing editor, says the
paper was partially successful when it challenged groups, but remains
concerned at the repercussions for the media of such a loophole.

“These
are publicly funded bodies, in our case often supported by Liverpool
City Council. We have enjoyed some successes, but my view is that if
some of these organisations do not wish to co-operate, there is plenty
in the Act that allows them not to,” he says.

The papers have
raised the issue with the government and been told that the Lord
Chancellor’s department is to review whether other bodies should be
added to those already captured by the Act.

Despite such misgivings, it is clear that Freedom of Information is beginning to deliver results.

Resourceful
journalists are successfully challenging the culture of secrecy that
has prevailed in local government for far too long and it is newspapers
that are setting the public interest agenda, not politicians.

It
is still true that doors are remaining shut in many town halls. But
those prepared to push at them using FoI are finding they are opening
with surprising ease.

Paul Francis is political editor of the Kent Messenger Group

 

Freedom of Information Act 2005

What it’s revealed

Councillors’ foreign trips abroad cost taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds

The Kent Messenger Group asked for details of all trips abroad made by county councillors and officers.

The result was two exclusive backgrounders on how, over two years,
politicians and officials had travelled to San Francisco, New York,
Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia and scores of European cities on official
council business.

“There is absolutely no chance that this
information would have come to us because it had been disclosed in an
official council cabinet report or discussed at a meeting,” says
Kent Messenger political editor Paul Francis.

Senior council officers paid more than £21,000 for eight days work

The Eastern Daily Press asked for financial details of the salaries
paid to two corporate officers brought in by Waveney District Council
on a temporary basis while two of its senior posts remained vacant. The
information disclosed showed that, despite the arrangement being halted
after just one week, the pair were paid £21,525. “A good example of how
FoI was used to stand up a story we had heard various rumours about.”

Council making £20,000 a day from parking charges

The Evening Press in York asked the City of York how much it was
raising from car parking charges. The response revealed that, in the
space of four years, the number of parking tickets issued had risen
from 10,000 to 28,500, raising some £7.5million for the authority. The
information was used as part of the Press’s “Stop The Highway Robbery”
campaign.

Freedom of Information Act 2005

TIPS ON MAKING FOI WORK

Train your staff. Knowing FoI exists is one thing, knowing how to apply it is another.

Appoint FoI “experts” in newsrooms. Treat FoI as integral to everything you do and brainstorm FoI ideas on a regular basis.

Learn from others. Can successful FoI requests be adapted to meet your interests?

Publicise your successes and failures. If information you request is withheld, tell your readers.

Harness the expertise of “interest” groups. They may be able to help frame requests for you.

Re-visit
and re-investigate old stories. FoI is retrospective. You may get
answers to questions that were stonewalled first time around.

Push your councils to be more open through disclosure logs or improved publication schemes.

Be prepared to invest time in FoI stories.

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