Sceptical: Lord Falconer
Press inquiries under the new Freedom of Information Act will not be treated as confidential meaning scoops could be scuppered.
Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, surprised the Law for
Journalists Conference by revealing that questions answered under the
act could not be guaranteed as exclusive.
Falconer was responding to a question from legal manager of The
Times Alastair Brett, who asked: “What is there to stop officials in a
particular government department leaking the stuff rather than giving
it back to the journalist and retaining the confidentiality of the
original application? We all know that is the way to stifle a story. Is
the application going to be regarded as confidential between a
newspaper and a department? Or if a department is going to be
embarrassed by a newspaper going mega on it -is it going to release it
in a way which will dilute the information by sliding it out to the
whole of the media.”
Lord Falconer said: “The Freedom of Information Act is not about
providing means of confidential stories to be passed between the
government and particular newspapers. It’s about openness.”
Falconer went further, saying there was nothing in the present act
to stop a newspaper asking what freedom of information requests had
been made by rival news organisations.
He said: “I haven’t addressed the issue, in the light of what you’ve
said I’ll think about it. But you can see I’m quite sceptical.
“I fully understand that newspapers are in commerce, but the purpose
of the Freedom of Information Act is to get information out there. If
in the light of the request being made it flushes the information out
fairly, that seems to me to be a good thing.” Lord Falconer continued:
“I find it very hard to say if a newspaper gives a Freedom of
Information request – regard that information as frozen until the
request is given back to the newspaper.”
Brett said he was disappointed by the Lord Chancellor’s response and
added: “It’s too easy for a Government department to release something
embarrassing to a friendly newspaper first so that they can put the
best spin on it that they can.”
He urged the Government to institute a system whereby media Freedom
of Information requests are subject to a set time delay between being
revealed to journalists and made public.
Society of Editors director Bob Satchwell said: “In the interests of
freedom of information and as the Lord Chancellor has said, changing
the culture, he should take the point very seriously. It could bring
the whole process into disrepute.”
Santha Rasaiah, the Newspaper Society’s head of legal and regulatory
affairs, said: “Inevitably there may be times when the relationship
between the journalist and the organisation concerned, or the nature of
the story that the journalist is working on may encourage an official
to adopt an unhelpful attitude.”
Department for Constitutional Affairs chief press officer Lucian Hudson said the matter was being looked into.
He urged journalists to discuss any concerns they have about FoI with Government departments with which they have dealings.
HEEL-DRAGGERS WIN DELAYING STRATEGY
FoI faced another possible setback as the rules compelling the
100,000 public authorities affected by the act to answer enquiries
within 20 days were apparently relaxed.
The code of practice for public officials, released last week, will
give them extra time beyond the 20-day target if they have to decide
whether the public interest in disclosure outweighs the public interest
in the information remaining confidential.
Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information Maurice Frankel said the move will “encourage unnecessary delays”
By Dominic Ponsford