Is public ridicule a useful weapon in an FOI battle?

What do you do when a Freedom of Information request is turned down? You could appeal it (if the reason for refusal entitles you to an appeal), you could just take the rejection and move on – or you could publish the fact that someone, somewhere, is trying to keep something a secret.

Especially if the reasoning is more than a little bizarre. When all other routes fail, then maybe a little public ridicule is in order.

Take, for example, this story from the This Is Lincolnshire website:

POLICE have refused to reveal the number of registered sex offenders currently living in the Boston policing sector saying that to do so could lead to vigilante attacks.

Under the Freedom Of Information Act the Target requested the figure for Lincolnshire Police‘s Boston sector, which not only includes the 28,849 homes in Boston Borough, but also a number of villages in East Lindsey such as Sibsey and Frithville.

But, despite accepting that highlighting the issue would lead to better awareness among the public and therefore may encourage people to provide information about suspicious activity and to take steps to protect themselves, the force has rejected the request.

In its refusal letter, the force said revealing the figures could result in vigilante attacks, drive the offenders underground and “undermine the relationship” between the offenders and their managers.

Unless the number of sex offenders in the Boston area is incredibly high, surely it’s nigh on impossible for anyone to launch vigilante attacks based on knowing how many sex offenders live in the area.

And in those circumstances, surely it makes sense for the journalist involved to report on the information they have been refused access to. Hopefully, commonsense will prevail.  Some see journalistic use of FOI as reporters just finding ‘easy leads.’ But if reporters and journalists are working on behalf of their readers, then surely it makes sense to tell readers when they can’t report information – especially when the reasoning is as flawed as it is in Lincolnshire.

After all, police in Cheshire had no problems releasing details of the sex offenders living in Warrington and Halton

2 comments

  1. But many journalists DO use FOI as a lazy way of generating stories, with too many requests simply “fishing trips” that cost public authorities (and therefore the taxpayer) an arm and a leg. FOI is all about being open and transparent, so why don’t news media just list all their outstanding FOI requests? Then their readers would know if they were acting from the best of motives, or just using FOi to fill space. There might, of course, be a bit of public ridicule directed at those media who are abusing FOI…..

    1. Why is a fishing trip lazy? I think you need to ask why a journalist feels the need to use FOI to conduct a fishing trip? If they felt they could ring up the council officer involved and get the information they needed, then they wouldn’t go down the FOI route – after all, it takes 20 days to come back. But we know what would happen if a journalist rang up and asked for information – they’d be referred to the press office which would seek to control what information was released.

      Would listing outstanding FOIs prompt public ridicule? Maybe, but given that journalists produce stories they think their readers want to read, it’s a safe bet many of those outstanding requests would be of interest to readers.

      As for FOIs from journalists costing an arm and a leg, that argument would be more realistic if a) there wasn’t a cost limit imposed on every FOI and b) authorities were doing all they could to be more open.

      Thanks for your comment – I do think you’re totally wrong though.

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