The Cabinet Office has been accused of running a secretive and “Orwellian” unit “blacklisting” journalists and screening their Freedom of Information requests.
Journalists at the BBC, Guardian, Times and Open Democracy are among those whose names, along with details of their work, have been added to a watchlist put together by the Cabinet Office’s FoI Clearing House.
Guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office states that FoI requests should generally be considered without any relevance given to who submitted them or what their motives might be – whether a journalist, MP or member of the public. There are only a few exceptions, such as when considering if requests are “vexatious or manifestly unreasonable”.
Investigative website Open Democracy uncovered details of the unit during months of research for a report on the state of Freedom of Information.
It said the operation meant the Government was “effectively centralising control within Gove’s office over what information is released to the public”.
It is understood that Government departments identify “sensitive” requests from journalists and researchers from the likes of Privacy International and Big Brother Watch and send them to the Cabinet Office unit, which then instructs the relevant team on how to respond, resulting in a slowing down and obstruction of the FoI process.
Open Democracy reporter Jenna Corderoy complained to the Information Commissioner after an FoI request she sent to the Ministry of Defence in February went unanswered within the lawful time period of 20 working days.
After putting in a request for her personal data held by several Government departments (a subject access request under the Data Protection Act), she later had sight of an MoD internal message blaming the delay on the Cabinet Office unit.
It said “due to the time spent in getting an approval from Clearing House, the FoI requestor has put in a complaint to the ICO”.
Other departments discussed her line of work when dealing with her requests including staff within the Attorney General’s Office “just flagging that Jenna Corderoy is a journalist” and warning that “once the response is confirmed, I’ll just need [redacted] to sign off on this before it goes out, since Jenna Corderoy is a reporter for Open Democracy”.
Corderoy said: “Now some may consider that I’m overreacting and that there are worse things to get upset by.
“But as I’ve been an avid user of the FoI Act for a number of years now, every day I feel like the system is more and more rigged – not just for me, but for other journalists, campaigners, researchers, activists and the general public.”
She said her two-year battle for information with the Cabinet Office had been “incredibly time-consuming, and dispiriting”.
The ICO ruled in July that the Cabinet Office should hand over copies of the Clearing House’s lists of journalists and the advice given out by the unit to other departments.
But the Cabinet Office is appealing the second part of this decision and Open Democracy has now appointed law firm Leigh Day to go to an information tribunal.
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, dubbed the unit “positively Orwellian”.
“It poses serious questions about the Government’s approach to access to information, its attitude to the public’s right to know and the collation of journalists’ personal information,” she said.
“The Cabinet Office Clearing House sits within a broader context in which the authorities are clamping down on media access and closing off the public’s right to access information.”
Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Helen Hayes said: “This is extremely troubling. If the Cabinet Office is interfering in FOI requests and seeking to work around the requirements of the act by blacklisting journalists, it is a grave threat to our values and transparency in our democracy.”
Conservative MP and former Brexit Secretary David Davis said the operation was “certainly against the spirit” of the FOI Act “and probably the letter too” as he called ministers to explain it to the House of Commons.
Data protection specialist Jon Baines of Mishcon de Reya shared similar concerns that he was “far from assured that the operation of the Clearing House complies with data protection law.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson told Open Democracy that the department “plays an important role through the FoI Clearing House of ensuring there is a standard approach across Government in the way we consider and respond to requests.
“With increasing transparency, we receive increasingly more complex requests under Freedom of Information. We must balance the public need to make information available with our duty to protect sensitive information and ensure national security.”
After the story broke, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman confirmed to reporters the clearing house has been operating under the Cabinet Office since 2005 and insisted the process remains “applicant-blind”.
“It’s nothing new, its role is purely to act as an advice centre to ensure consistency and compliance across Government in the way we answer FOIs,” he said, according to PA.
Asked whether the unit had compiled lists of journalists, he said: “The consideration of FOI requests is, and remains, applicant-blind.
“All FOI processes, including the clearing house, are fully compliant with all data protection rules.”
Open Democracy’s report on FoI also found that in the past five years the Cabinet Office, Home Office, Foreign Office and Treasury have all refused more requests than they have granted.
It noted that the Cabinet Office, the Government department responsible for FoI policy, was the one most likely to have its decisions referred to the ICO.
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