Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre has issued a personal plea to the Government to back away from “disturbing” plans to limit the Freedom of Information Act.
Dacre has written to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information in his capacity as chairman of the 2009 review of the 30-year-rule and as the UK’s longest serving national newspaper editor.
The commission is currently looking at ways to reduce the “burden” on public authorities of complying with FoI. This could include new exemptions, fees for requests and a low cost limit on how much public authorities should spend answering requests.
Dacre said the proposals to restrict Freedom of Information are “entirely antipathetic to the mood of the times, in which voters expect more, not less transparency in the way they are governed”.
He said: “At present the default position of Whitehall is that many things should be kept secret. In a digital age – where leaks are endemic on the internet, in the printed press and in instant political memoirs – this is unsustainable; there should be a cultural change whereby the default position should be an assumption of openness, unless there are over-riding reasons for secrecy.
“In my 27 years as an editor I have never seen Britain's political process held in such low esteem by voters. Curtailing FoI will inevitably contribute to even greater voter cynicism about an elitist political class protecting its own interests, rather than the public's.
“In the main, I suspect, dislike of FoI is driven by Whitehall's belief that civil servants should be exempt from public scrutiny. This is in my view counter-productive, and perceived by the public simply as a compulsion to cover backsides.
“Civil servants should remember that with authority comes responsibility. They should also remember who pays their wages.”
Public authorities have complained widely about the cost of complying with FoI, but Dacre said this is a “red herring” and that the cost is “footling”.
The £5.6m cost of FoI to central government is, he said, £700,000 less than the cost of ministerial limousines and one fiftieth the cost of the government’s “army of 3,650 press officers and spin doctors”.
He added: “There are now nearly as many government press officers as there are national newspaper journalists.”
And he said: “I have no doubt governments would like to govern by press release. One of the most insidious developments of the Blair government was the politicisation of ministerial press offices by Alastair Campbell, who was given civil service status so he could control them, and who purged traditionally neutral civil servant press officers and replaced them with party placemen. FoI is needed as an antidote to this.”
Press freedom under attack
Dacre warned that freedom of the press is “under unprecedented attack” through:
- the increasing use of the Data Protection Act by powerful individuals to suppress stories
- the abuse of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act by police to expose journalists' sources
- unreformed and punitive Conditional Fee Agreements
- and the establishment by the Government of the Royal Charter and
- discriminatory exemplary damages to force newspapers into state-controlled regulation.”
He said: “The media as a whole will inevitably see any erosion of FoI as yet another move by an authoritarian political class to restrict their freedom.”
Dacre cited the Daily Mail’s recent investigation into public sector pay which found one chief executive of an NHS Trust who was earning £1.26m a year and a council chief executive who received £2,368 a month for his Porsche.
He said: “Our reporters spent months examining the annual reports and remuneration committee minutes of more than 500 public bodies, spanning local government, the NHS, universities and the police…
“As each NHS Trust, police force and university is an independent body, we and the Taxpayers' Alliance had to make a total of 6,000 FoI requests to extract information that should have been freely available in annual reports and remuneration committee minutes…
“The cost of responding to FoI inquiries, along with data protection issues, is a common reason given for failing to respond to requests for information. I can't help feeling that much less public money would be wasted if public bodies were genuinely transparent, and obliged to respond to FoI requests fully and promptly.”
He said that a fee of £25 per request, which has been suggested by Birmingham City Council, would have meant a total cost for the investigation of £150,000 making it “prohibitively expensive”.
It was, he said, “a very large sum even for a major national newspaper like the Daily Mail, and completely beyond the reach of a regional newspaper or magazine”.
He concluded: “The record of this Government, and the last, on transparency and freedom of expression is not strong.
“The Leveson Inquiry was hijacked by opponents of a free press and resulted in the first attempt in three hundred years to erect a structure for state-controlled regulation of the press, underpinned by discriminatory laws.
“It also led to police forces ending all but the most formal, officially sanctioned contact between police and journalists, resulting in potential witnesses failing to come forward in high profile cases.
“Two dozen journalists have been prosecuted under medieval laws simply for doing their jobs – only for juries to reject every case but one (and that is under appeal) .
“Now a commission packed with politicians and civil servants is looking at ways of restricting freedom of information…
“I find it very disturbing that, rather than recognising this as evidence of the need for the Act, and celebrating its success, the government sees it as a reason for restrictions to be imposed.
“I have found nothing in the commission's call for evidence which convinces me that the Act is not working as it should, and ten years is far too soon for a general review. The Act should be left as it is – or strengthened to allow more scrutiny of government.”