Town hall twits are still slaves to secrecy

And this season’s award for “piece of legislation most likely to be used in a heavy-handed way to prevent journalists from legitimately doing their jobs” goes to…pause for dramatic effect as golden envelope is opened…the Audit Commission Act 1988!

Gasps of amazement from the audience as the cameras cut away to the disappointed faces of the Data Protection Act and the Contempt of Court Act, red-hot joint favourites for the fifth year running. The Audit what?

Richard Vize, editor of Local Government Chronicle, suddenly knows all about this obscure act. After LGC printed leaked details of the Audit Commission’s council league tables before their official publication date, he has been threatened with legal action. Vize could face a £5,000 fine and up to two years in jail. If the action goes ahead, it’ll send a chill through editors all around the country who report on their local councils.

Section 49 of the act, it turns out, says that details of council inspections can only be published if the council itself agrees. Remember, these are public bodies. Spending public money.

Since the leak, LGC’s journalists have been barred from press conferences, while other journalists have had to promise not to file copy for the magazine before they have been allowed to attend.

As 2002 draws to a close, isn’t it reassuring to know our public authorities are adopting the principles of freedom of information with such gusto?

Stay out of the box

‘Call journalists last.’ Good advice if you’re looking for someone reliable to fix the washing machine. Even better advice when it comes from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia – which has ruled this week that journalists should only be called to testify as a very final resort if their evidence is crucial to a conviction.

It means a sigh of relief for Jonathan Randal, formerly of The Washington Post, who had been issued with a subpoena forcing him to give evidence in the trial of a former Serbian minister. His sigh will be echoed by all those who believe that journalists’ fundamental role as impartial observers is undermined the moment they are forced to give evidence for one side or another in any criminal proceedings.

Let’s hope it’s also heard by Lord Saville, the man chairing the Bloody Sunday Inquiry.

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