One of the questions which gets askes every now and again when doing FOI training is: “How important is it to say that the story is based on Freedom of Information material?”
Until now, my response has tended be something along the lines of: Why wouldn’t you say you’ve used FOI? It shows the reader where the material has come from, and in cases where it is material which public authorities wouldn’t normally want released, helps demonstrate holding authorities to account.
Now I’ve stumbled across another good reason: It helps promote the use of FOI, which in turn can help readers use it themselves.
In future, I’ll be using this story from the Manchester Evening News to back up this point. The M.E.N had reported last year on how Greater Manchester Police had spent £80,000 on a blimp which was meant to watch over big events in the city – but ended up being grounded most of the time because of bad weather.
A reader usng the paper’s website felt something didn’t feel quite right about the police’s numbers in the story, so used FOI himself to ask some questions around the cost:
Now an M.E.N website reader has used the Freedom Of Information Act to establish the cost of purchasing the balloon, related kit and training for officers, was actually £102,588.
The enquiry also established the force recouped some it is losses by selling on the some of the items associated with the blimp.
The force admitted that ‘to date we have received £12,854’.
It means GMP made a net loss of £89,734 on the project – nearly £5,000 for each of the 18 times it was used.
Paul Hicks, 36, a motor mechanic from Humberside, obtained the information after learning of the M.E.N.’s story.
The father-of-three said: “I was horrified when I read it.
“The police didn’t seem very forthcoming so I requested the information. I couldn’t believe they could spend that amount of money on something like that. It’s disgusting. They said they get some of the money back but it wasn’t a lot.
“That money would have paid the wages of a fair few bobbies for a year.”
Some opponents of FOI claim it is used too often by the media and isn’t serving its original purpose of making it easier for the public at large to get information. That’s normally the argument of a public authority which doesn’t like having a light cast on affairs it’d rather keep secret, but if you take the point at face value, then the media can help by mentioning FOI more frequently in stories.
Another question I get asked is in relation to What Do They Know, the website which makes it easier for people to submit FOI requests. I always make the point that if using information from WDTK, you should say where the information was posted. The question I often get is: “Why?” After all, we don’t report the source of all news stories if they begin on noticeboards, press releases or the death notices.
As with the M.E.N example, mentioning WDTK has the potential to benefit the media. It highlights a website which people may subsequently use to get information which we can subsequently use. That’s in addition to the other argument I use in response – dressing up a WDYK FOI as your own work always runs the risk of being rumbled – never a good thing.
The M.E.N is one of many papers which is very good at saying stories have been sourced under FOI – and that clearly has the benefit of prompting others to use it. The M.E.N also makes a point of setting out when others have sourced the FOI information – such as Oldham Council website figures which it reported on as being sourced by Saddleworth News and Tameside campaigner Liam Billington’s FOI into the cost of a council’s presence on Second Life – and that surely encourages others to give it a go themselves. In a way, it’s crowdsourcing of FOI in action.