One of the dilemmas facing journalists when an FOI request is rejected is whether it’s worth appealing.
With no guarantee of an appeal being successful (although never underestimate the lengths authorities will go to to avoid becoming named in a precedent if your appeal is upheld by the Information Commissioner) when you ask the authority to review it, and then the lengthy appeal via the Information Commissioner, it is potentially a lot of work for nothing.
But proof that a determinaton to get what you think should be rightfully yours to ask for comes this week from the Salford Star, an independent magazine for Salford which is currently published online only.
It has a reputation for not letting go when it wants something – as Salford University has found out to its cost.
18 months ago, the Salford Star asked the University how much it was paying in rent for space inside the new Media City complex – you know, the place where BBC Breakfast is moving to with such fanfare.
The University was reluctant to release the information, and, according to the eventual ruling by the Information Commissioner, originally said the information on how much rent was being paid wasn’t available.
When pressed, the university changed tack and said it was exempt under commercial confidentiality – something the Information Commissioner has now ruled shouldn’t have stopped the release of the information.
For the record:
The Salford Star can now reveal that the rent being paid to Peel Media (Peel Holdings) for its new four floor campus at MediaCityUK is £19,126,141 (excluding VAT) until November 2020. Or £2.125million a year. Or £40,867 per week.
Was this information worth spending time over 18 months to get? I think so – for two reasons.
First of all, university tuition fees are due to rise dramatically and universities must seek approval from government before raising their fees to £9,000. Those universities must prove they are making opportunities available for poorer students to attend. But in seeking the right to charge the maximum amount, universities have to accept that they are part of a system which the public have a right to ask questions of. I think there is a moral right for the public to be able to ask questions of universities – especially students who may want to know exactly how the money they’ll be paying for years is being spent.
Secondly, the more people who fight against seemingly flimsly exemption refusals, the better. The Salford Star story reminds me of the first privacy cases involving footballers we saw in the early 2000s – when the secrecy orders were eventually lifted, some of the footballers became more famous for their court case than they did their playing careers. The amount of rent Salford University pays will now be more widely known than had they just released it in the first place. And there’s a good lesson in information management for public bodies there.
Appealing might feel like a hassle, and it might mean that the information you eventually get is harder to turn into a story, but FOI is something many of us make use of, and it’s up to us to ensure we push back against those who seek to refuse the release of information.