Why it feels like the sky is falling in for those who believe in press freedom and openness

There are times as editor of Press Gazette when I feel like ‘Chicken Licken’, the children’s story character who always felt like the sky was falling in.

But this week I once again feel compelled to sound a warning over attacks on press freedom in the UK.

First, we uncovered an apparent conspiracy in the public sector to weaken the Freedom of Information Act. Click here for coverage.

Elsewhere, the police crackdown on unauthorised contact with journalists hit a new low in Sussex.

But first, FoI.

The Government’s ten-year review of the act has long been seen by the media as a precursor to neutering it.

The responses to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information call for evidence have now revealed what public authorities have in mind.

They show the extent to which many public officials appear to hold journalists in contempt and see their questions as an irritating inconvenience.

They want to neuter FoI by imposing charges on requestors (“a tax on a democratic right”, as the News Media Association puts it). Many also want to at least halve the time limit on how long officers can spend answering individual requests from 18 hours to nine hours. A number of public authorities also want to include ‘thinking time’ in the estimate they make when deciding whether or not answering an FoI goes over the statutory limit.

This means that a complicated FoI, where the public interest case needs special consideration, could be thrown out because officers might estimate it would take them more than nine hours to decide whether or not to answer it. One can imagine that this could become the new catch-all reason given for refusing to answer any FoI which is worth asking.

One NHS trust complained that FoI disclosures cause "reputational damage which the Trust has to use resource and time to dispel”.

Another said “there is a growing sense of frustration amongst staff because the majority of FoI requests are from journalists seeking information for an article”.

Cumbria County Council said it should "be enabled to refuse media requests that could be considered as 'lazy journalism' that will clearly not inform genuine investigative journalism or that will not result in 'news' that is not in the public interest”

The idea of a council itself deciding what constitutes “genuine investigative journalism” makes the mind boggle.

If public authorities genuinely are finding FoI to be a strain on resources, perhaps that is because they haven’t yet made the leap towards making transparency part of their routine.

There is no doubt that the number of FoI requests is inflated by the fact that journalists should not have to ask for this information. Sometimes simple questions to press officers are turned into FoI requests.

There is clear evidence that public authorities “game” the system, turning down request after request on the same subject at the end of the 20-day limit in order to delay answers sometimes for years.

The idea that universities should be exempt from FoI, as the Russell Group institutions argue, is laughable (and, dare I say it, intellectually inconsistent). They claim they are not public bodies. Yet they are mainly built at the public expense, funded by publicly-administered student loans and extensively supported out of the public purse.

One only has to look at the various scandals around pay and perks of vice chancellors to see that universities benefit from the sunlight of transparency as much as other bodies.

Away from FoI, in Sussex, yet another police officer is facing the sack for talking to journalists in circumstances where no money changed hands.

Inspector Lee Lyons is also under investigation for contact with prostitutes whilst on duty. I won’t comment on that, except to say it is possible to imagine a policeman could have legitimate reasons to be in touch with sex workers.

But much of his charge sheet centres around the fact that he “formed and maintained” relationships with journalists. There is no question of romantic involvement, this simply appears to be the sort of communication about operational matters which were once seen as completely normal.

Why shouldn’t a fairly senior officer communicate with journalists in order to make sure the public is well informed about crimes and police work?

One of his charges states that he issued an “on demand” press release about a house fire.

Before Leveson, this would have simply been seen as pro-active policing.

Weakening the public’s right to information and sacking police officers who speak to journalists will only make our public institutions darker more secretive places. And society as a whole will ultimately be the loser.

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