Kicking an issue into the FOI long grass

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.

 

2 comments

  1. And sadly, I’m sure Dave will receive a response from the press office shortly after he gets the FOI request back – detailing why x has been paid for y. Even though FOI requests should be dealt with ‘applicant blind’.

  2. I do like this blog – it’s good to hear the ‘other side of the story’. Thank you. (I also love FOI Friday!)

    Few things though …

    First up, absolutely agree with the “two problems” outlined – if in doubt, why not pick up the phone and ask what’s most appropriate? Sorry to be harsh here, and this is very much personal opinion (as is this entire post, I’m not speaking for my organisation) – but as journalists, you have presumably been trained in research, and it’s an integral part of your job. Don’t sit back and expect us to do ALL the work for you please!

    Second – specifics of individual litigation cases (also applies to serious incidents, etc): Section 40 (personal information exemption) often genuinely does apply here. The rarity of legal cases/serious incidents means that giving details, even with no names, may have the potential to identify the individuals concerned. The publication of the Baby P Serious Case Review appears to set a precedent, but as there had already been much publicity about the individuals involved, I think this case was genuinely different. We’re into the realms of ‘public interest’ vs ‘the public is interested’ here. Sorry, but legally speaking, only the first of those is relevant even if you have articles/publications to sell.

    Third – I can’t comment on the specifics of Dave’s request to Shropshire, but just for some insight: here, our press office tries to answer journalist’s requests for information very quickly (within 48 hours I believe). However, getting information internally, fast, is not always easy, especially financial information at this time of year when we’re all in the throes of audit, with equally legally obligatory deadlines. If anyone here receives a fairly complex/time-consuming/detailed “non-FOI” request for information, then this may quite often be transferred to the FOI team to manage – and you might get better results a) because we have the “stick” of the Act to get our colleagues to meet deadlines and b) we answer the questions, we don’t do ‘spin’. The point is that there isn’t necessarily anything sinister about a request being dealt with under FOI/20 day limit rather than more informally answered by the press office.

    Fourthly – @Ed Walker – I’m pretty cynical about spin myself, but sometimes, context is necessary. As noted in (3), FOI just answers the question. So, let’s say £1M was spent on, oh I dunno … for example: a public information campaign. £1M is a LOT of money. But in the context of most public authority budgets it’s small change, and if the local population is 1 million people, then £1M to communicate details of available services starts to sound more like a reasonable bargain. If that detail hasn’t been asked for in the FOI request, it might actually be in the public interest for the press office to follow up with this information so people understand why that money was spent and the benefits (less wasted resource on misdirected enquiries, etc).

    Finally, it makes me very sad to see the poor opinion that so many journalists seem to have of local authorities/FOI processes. As many people, including the author himself, have pointed out on FOIman’s excellent and insightful blog, many FOI officers are right behind the principles of the Act and most of us can cite numerous cases where we have had to get quite adamant, sometimes with much more senior staff, that disclosure should be made (i.e. we’re on “your side”!).

    I agree that public sector bodies can sometimes be unnecessarily defensive (is it any wonder when limited resources lead to tough choices – you can’t keep all of the people happy all of the time – and, like social workers, seem to be damned if you do, damned if you don’t?) However, it’s not right, and it does need fixing. It’ll take both sides to do it though – we want responsible journalists who check facts and publish a fair story (which I’m sorry to say does not always happen), you want information to be able to do that. You guys call press offices all the time, how many times have you spoken to the FOI people in the organisations you communicate with regularly? E-mail need not apply.

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