A former colleague of mine, Oliver Evans, made the headlines today (well, the journalism website headlines) in relation to his investigation using FOI in Buckinghamshire.
The Bucks Free Press discovered Wycombe District Council had released a report by consultants into a controversial stadium plan to a local person after an FoI request, while denying it to the newspaper.
Under the Act, chief reporter Oliver Evans applied for copies of all documents from consultants relating to plans to build a new sports stadium, which could be sited at Wycome Air Park.
He was provided with a 2009 technical report into having the stadium at that site but not one from the previous year – which covered key details about where new development could be sited on the airfield.
But a member of the public who asked for that report specifically was given it under FoI legislation and provided a copy to the newspaper.
The authority has now apologised to the paper and said it will review the FoI request to ensure all appropriate documents are released.
Now, it could be that there was just an error at Wycombe Council on this occasion. But here’s my question on this: What if Oliver hadn’t found out that an FOI request had been submitted by a member of the public?
While Wycombe’s error may have been just that, I’ve done enough FOI training around Trinity Mirror titles this year to have picked up on a common theme: If you’re a journalist, you’re very likely to get input from press offices when putting in an FOI request.
I won’t name the councils here, but authorities in the North West, North East, Midlands and south have all allowed press offices to contact reporters when FOI requests are made by journalists.
In some cases, the press officers claim that FOI isn’t needed, they’ll just release the information via the press office. The danger here is that the information the council doesn’t want to release might ‘get lost’ on its way through the press office.
In other cases, the press office has tried to suggest the paper is wasting council time by putting in requests ‘just for a story.’
In one extreme case – I won’t name the council – the FOI officer often now just ignores FOI requests from a newspaper, and refers any questions to the press office.
And last week, we saw Oldham Council responding to an FOI from Saddleworth News writer Richard Jones by releasing much of the data he’d requested in a press release to everyone. Do they do this for all FOI responses?
I suspect it’s not a new issue. Heather Brooke, speaking at an event I went to last year, was asked about the issue of submitting claims under false names. Brooke raised the issue of the Information Commissioner not accepting complaints based on false name requests – but if there’s evidence that a request from a journalist is treated differently to those from the public, it might be worth a go.
But the main point here is that FOI officers are supposed to be applicant blind. It doesn’t matter if the request comes from a member of the public, a journalist or Bungle from Rainbow – it should be treated exactly the same.
The Information Commissioner needs to take action here – because it’s a problem which appears to be getting worse. And with councils set to take on public health powers from primary care trusts, it’s quite possible it could get even harder for journalists to access information.