On more than one occasion, local government communication officers (press officers in old money) have contacted me to suggest that this blog encourages people to submit FOI requests instead of talking to the council press office.
A couple of news editors have said similar things to me – that they find their reporters submitting FOI requests for information which is already freely available, or could be if only they enquired as to whether they could have it through the regular press office/newsroom relationship.
There are two problems which occur if FOI becomes a default, rather than a resort to, action. The first is that information which could be in print within days is, instead, held up for up to 20 days.
The second is that you, as the journalist, can end up looking a bit daft – asking for information which you really should know is already out there.
The most obvious example which springs to mind involves reporters asking hospital trusts for the amount they’ve paid out in compensation for botched operations or accidents on the premises. Hospital trusts will take 20 days to reply to you that they don’t hold that data – because they don’t pay out the compensation. The NHS Litigation Authority does, and they tend to be all too happy to talk about the compensation paid out in general terms. Getting specifics on individual cases is a different matter, however.
But is it any wonder that journalists resort to FOI quickly when we hear of cases such as the one involving Dave Morris, who has been covering Shropshire Council since 1996?
There was been a lot of talk in the press about credit cards issued to council bosses by councils and what they put on these cards. So Dave, who works for the Shropshire Star, asked the council’s communications department about the authority’s use of credit cards.
He was told to submit an FOI request. By the press office.
Dave says it’s the first time he’s found he’s had to use FOI to get information which he’d expect to get from the press office.
He’s now submitted his FOI request and signs off on his blog about the issue saying: “The response is now eagerly awaited.”
Council press officers can’t have it both ways – arguing on one hand that journalists should come to them for information, but on the other than batting them away with FOI blockers when it suits.
The result is a suspicious journalist. And as any celebrity who has ever tried to get an injunction to stop publication knows, standing in the way of a story only leads to it getting a bigger show when the details are revealed.