Too much secrecy among public bodies, says survey

Editors have
identified secrecy among public bodies as the greatest obstacle to
press freedom, according to a Newspaper Society survey.

Eighty
per cent of regional daily and 60 per cent of weekly editors polled
rated the clampdown on information by public bodies as being of “high”

or “very high” significance.

The
NS survey on the major obstacle to press freedom, conducted during last
year’s Local Newspaper Week, showed there was a reluctance in central
and local government and increasingly among the police, schools and
health bodies to release information considered by editors to be in the
public interest.

Libel laws, the Data Protection Act, restrictive
court orders, the use of the law of confidence and the lack of access
to local government information were also listed as areas of concern.

Editors
want to see reform of the libel laws, to strengthen public interest
defences, and are critical of the no-win no-fee agreements between
litigants and lawyers.

They were sceptical about the impact the
new Freedom of Information Act will have. Many felt local bodies were
unaware of the implications of FoI.

Editors called for greater openness by public bodies, particularly the police, local government and schools.

They
want clear and accurate guidance to encourage the release of
information by public bodies and services, particularly in the
operation of data protection and human rights.

Finally, they call for more efficient access to local government material, particularly financial information.

Less open debate

Many
regional editors believe the new Cabinet-style local government has led
to less open debate. Adrian Faber, Express & Star , Wolverhampton,
said: “Cabinet local government means far less debate and decision
making in public.” While Lancashire Evening Post editor Simon Reynolds
said: “Lancashire County Council instructs officers not to talk to the
press. Most decisions taken at political group meetings are in secret.”

National favouritism

Central
Government press offices came under fire and were perceived by some
regional evening papers as favouring the nationals. “Some still do not
understand evening paper deadlines,” said Paul Horrocks, Manchester
Evening News. Mike Gilson, The News, Portsmouth, said: “Despite
promises it is notoriously difficult for us to get even a five-minute
conversation with a junior minister on a subject of local importance.”

Court restrictions

The biggest areas of concern in court reporting was the banning of defendants’

names
and addresses, automatic bans on identifying children, access to court
lists and the Magistrates’ Court register of judgments.

Eastern
Daily Press editor Peter Franzen said: “More and more defence lawyers
are ‘trying it on’ by applying the Section 39 orders that only serve to
protect a parent.”

Franzen said even more worrying was the way
Section 11s are being used to ban the release of paedophiles’ addresses
due to the public order problems it could cause. The MEN’s Horrocks
believes that all press should be notified of any orders that are to be
imposed on a case. He said: “The Attorney General’s website is next to
useless.”

No-win no-fee

No-win
no-fee agreements in libel cases are making it more likely for people
to sue papers for defamation, editors believe. Stephen Brauner, Barrow
North West Evening Mail, described the agreements as a “deterrent to
investigative journalism” due to the potentially high costs of
defending actions. Peter Charlton, Yorkshire Post, believes particular
problems arise with professionals, such as police officers and
teachers, represented by unions in legal actions.

Data protection legislation

Police
forces were said to be the worst for using data protection as an excuse
to hold back information. More than 40 editors singled out data
protection legislation as the greatest obstacle to press freedom.

However,
Horrocks said the Human Rights Act had “probably helped the press as
the courts seem less likely to issue orders because of the public’s
right to know”.

The UK’s laws were criticised for allowing
journalists to be jailed for not revealing their sources and not
offering enough protection to whistle blowers.

Football clubs

Some
editors are concerned that football clubs are trying to control the
reporting and photographing of matches. Liverpool Echo editor-in-chief
Mark Dickinson said: “Sporting events need a new status as a
quasi-public event – otherwise clubs will charge you for the air you
breathe soon.”

Right to name children

Editors
said they wanted to be able to publish photographs of newsworthy
events, particularly those involving children, without being prevented
from identifying those involved.

Cambridge Evening News editor Colin Grant said: “We do have some schools who refuse to name pupils in photographs.”

Jason
Gibbins, Daventry Express, claimed: “By losing the right to name
children in our newspapers we could set a precedent that could destroy
our newspapers.”

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