FOI: Why looking beyond the obvious can pay dividends

Here’s the front page of last week’s Sunday Sun. You might recognise the story, even if you don’t read the Sunday Sun – it was widely followed up by the Nationals on Monday.

Joshua Shrimpton-Dean, a trainee on the Press Association course in Newcastle, used FOI to ask East Coast, the rail operator on the East Coast mainline, for details of the expenses claims put in by directors.

It took a while for the information to come back – but it was worth the wait. The story revealed that one director had caught the plane from Scotland to London on several occasions – because the train would have taken too long. 

Not quite the message East Coast is trying to get across to its customers, I’m sure.

It’s a great FOI success – and Joshua also included inside details of many other claims, some of which portray directors in a more positive light, including the director who paid for new flights for two Chinese travellers after a delay on the East Coast meant they’d missed their previous flight.

Joshua was able to FOI East Coast because it is state-owned, and has been ever since National Express handed the franchise back two years ago, so it wouldn’t be possible for a reporter in Birmingham to try the same with, say, LondonMidland or Virgin Trains.

But there is a valuable lesson for journalists in Joshua’s FOI: Think beyond the obvious when it comes to FOI requests. Councils, hospital trusts, police forces, primary care trusts and government departments are all regular targets for local and regional journalists – largely due to the impact these organisations have on public life.

However, there are 100,000 FOI-able bodies in the UK. This list from the government includes ‘other public bodies and offices’ which are covered by FOI. Of course, knowing what they do is a start … but there’s bound to be a wealth of information tucked away.

 

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