We must give a damn about this freedom

It’s one of those issues that can all too easily be filed under "boring but important – action later". And because it’s been floating around government circles for decades, it’s equally easy to assume that when it finally does become reality, it won’t actually mean much.

But the Freedom of Information Act – no snoring at the back, there – represents a golden opportunity for all of us.

It’s an opportunity to make more than 70,000 public bodies – from central government departments right down to the smallest parish councils – tell us exactly what they’re doing with our money. And why. An opportunity to shine light into some of the darker corners of the worlds of authority. And, crucially, an opportunity to shift more newspapers and magazines, and attract more viewers and listeners, in the process.

But there are a number of sales jobs to be done if those opportunities aren’t to go to waste. The product in question may not seem the easiest to sell, but the rewards could be great.

Executives must sell it to their hard-pressed editors; editors must sell it to their overworked journalists; journalists must sell it to their readers, who frankly don’t give a damn about the term ‘FoI’.

But what those readers do give a damn about is misuse of their money. They give a damn about inept health services. About GM crops secrecy. About the handling of the foot and mouth crisis. About Alder Hey. They give a damn about Hillsborough. About Shipman. About any number of these types of stories for which FoI holds a key to unlock filing cabinets.

So hats off to Colin Davison of Northcliffe Newspapers for bringing the group’s senior editors together this month to remind them what the act will mean to them, and what they should be doing about it.

Because even though it’s not fully in force until 2005, there are plenty of steps that we all should be taking now to make sure we get full use out of it then.

Those Northcliffe editors may have some cynical concerns about the act, but they are united in the purpose of ensuring that the tireless work of Maurice Frankel, at the Campaign for Freedom of Information, and of Santha Rasaiah, at the Newspaper Society, doesn’t go to waste.

Thanks to these two, and many others, a potentially powerful weapon is about to be added to our collective armoury.

We’ll be letting ourselves, and our readers, down if we don’t make sure that it’s primed and ready to fire when the time comes.

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