What is Denis MacShane’s real beef with FOI?

Denis McShane, the former Labour Europe minister, this week argued that media companies should be covered by the Freedom of Information Act.

His argument is that all those organisations which have a ‘formal status within the public realm’ should be covered by FOI.

He says:

“We refer to the Fourth Estate; it is time for the FOI laws to extend fully to all of our media organisations who have far more power than many of the public agencies, the local councils and the rest who are covered by FOI legislation.

“What our media organisations, the oligarchs who own them, often from overseas, decide to do has a huge impact on our public life.”

“We refer to the Fourth Estate; it is time for the FOI laws to extend fully to all of our media organisations who have far more power than many of the public agencies, the local councils and the rest who are covered by FOI legislation.
“What our media organisations, the oligarchs who own them, often from overseas, decide to do has a huge impact on our public life.”

There are three issues here: The original purpose of FOI, whether such a system could be workable for the media, and also why MacShane chose to single out the media for special examination here, when he was also suggesting that any organisation which received public money should be covered by FOI.

To answer the first point, the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act was to enable the public to exercise their right to know about public organisations which are funded by the taxpayer. To that end, extending it to cover the media seems a little odd – other than the BBC and Channel 4, no public funding is provided to the media, other than for specific services such as advertising, printing of publications and so on. Thanks to the coalition government’s decision to make all spending over £500 public, this information will soon be widely available.

MacShane is supposed to be a champion of the media in the Commons, because he is an ex president of the NUJ. The NUJ is often accused of being out of touch and unrealistic in its aims, and it appears MacShane has carried these traits into parliament, at least in this case.

How exactly would you enforce FOI for the media when it takes so many forms? Guido Fawkes’s pursuit of William Hague last week demonstrates that the power within the media isn’t confined to the big corporations – it’s entirely possible for one person to have just a big an impact as a team of investigative journalists. How, in this day and age, do you define ‘media’ or ‘powerful media’?  It’s  a non-starter.

MacShane, you’d think, would know that. You’d also think he’d choose various other organisations which have a much greater impact on people’s daily lives – the ones which provide services which are traditionally seen as public services. I’m thinking train operators or water companies as examples here, both of which profit handsomely from running services which traditionally were run by government, which receive financial support from government, and which are regulated by government.

Which brings us to the reason why MacShane would single out the media here. He rather kills his noble argument by digging up this old chestnut:

“A great number of the FOI requests from journalists, not all, there are many diligent journalists who use FOI very effectively, but a great number of requests are there purely for seeking out sensationalist tittle-tattle.”

We’ve been over this ground before: There are more than enough reasons to reject FOI requests as it is, but it’s an essential part of the act that the authorities don’t analyse the motives of those submitting requests. Crucially, it’s not in the gift of an authority to decide if the information will be put to suitable use.

But maybe there’s a reason why MacShane is so riled against ‘tittle tattle.’ Could it be that the London Evening Standard used FOI so very well to find out about complaints made by staff at the new expenses regulators about MPs?

It didn’t name MacShane – he confessed to being one of the MPs complained about. Was it right that the information about the complaint was made public? Of course. Was it tittle tattle? Not when an MP is involved, paid for by the public purse.

More and more often, we’re seeing public figures supporting FOI in principle, but then lashing out when they find themselves held up to public scrutiny. Instead of coming up with unworkable ideas, MacShane would be better off deciding whether he’s comfortable picking up a public salary when it runs the risk of being held up to public scrutiny.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s