Oxford Mail publishes FoI campaign special edition as Times leader condemns 'misguided' FoI review

The Oxford Mail today devoted 15 pages of coverage to a special edition aboutt the campaign to preserve the Freedom of Information Act.

The Newsquest daily  has used the act to reveal stories including: thousands of assaults on teachers in schools, private ambulance firms given millions of pounds to take patients to hospital and the increasing use of taser weapons by local police.

Oxford Mail editor Simon O’Neill said he feared the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information set up to review the act will recommend weakening it and introducing charges for requests.

He said: "There is no doubt that there is a slow creep towards secrecy in many government departments and public bodies. The rise of legions of communications teams, who effectively act as nightclub bouncers for journalists seeking access to information, has made the Freedom of Information Act a key weapon in the armoury of any news organisation worth its salt. It is often our only way round the gatekeepers of information that the public has an absolute right to know.

“Now we are facing a suspiciously loaded and opaque commission which is ‘reviewing’ the Act. If you want a clue as to what direction it is heading in, the commission itself is not subject to the very Act it is reviewing and has even considered taking anonymous evidence. The man and woman in the street must realise that this is about their right to know, not just that of a few journalists. And we’re not talking about state secrets here, but about how our public bodies spend our cash and do the daily job we pay them to do.

“The Act is, if I am not mistaken, about to be severely curtailed and made subject to hefty charges, all because a few politicians who got caught fiddling their expenses and some well remunerated Sir Humphreys see it as a pain in the proverbial butt. That must not be allowed to happen for the sake of a government and society that is truly open. This is our information, not theirs.”

Oxford East MP Andrew Smith (Labour) said he was opposed to attempts to weaken the Act. He said: “I very strongly back the Oxford Mail’s campaign.

"It is crucial that the public have the right to know about the information that affects their lives. “Without the Act too many public authorities kept too much too secret."

Meanwhile, The Times today published a leader column saying that the "misguided review of the Freedom of Information Act cannot be allowed to limit access to facts the public should know".

It said: "In the decade since the act’s creation, FoI requests have proven an essential counterweight to officialdom’s love of secrets, and to the new and pernicious trend towards government by press release. On a local level the FoI act, expertly deployed by the regional press, is a vital and cost-effective defence against waste and maladministration by local councils. Nationally, the act has become a lever to prise open doors behind which policy is often decided and the tone of important debates set.

"The Times has used the act to follow the money trail from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to a charity set up by the former MP George Galloway; to reveal naked antisemitism in Preston town hall; and to show that when Gordon Brown (who now admits he never had a head for figures) reduced the value of the nation’s pension funds by £100 billion with a 'stealth' tax, he did so in defiance of his own Treasury officials.

"Another newspaper used FoI requests in a campaign to force the disclosure of the Prince of Wales’s 'black spider' letters to ministers. That campaign’s eventual success is thought to have been among the motivations for the review now under way, which will report by the end of the year.

"With and without FoI, this is a time when journalism, not the opposition, is holding authority to account. Journalists, not politicians, have exposed corruption in parliament, athletics, cycling and international football. If the FoI act is occasionally abused, that is vastly better than the widespread abuse of power and privilege it has helped to expose."

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