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FOI: Proof again that context is crucial

There was the usual gnashing of teeth on Twitter at the fact someone had the nerve to ask, via FOI, the Metropolitan Police to reveal how much it spent on calls to the Speaking Clock.

The answer? £35,000 in two years.

Whenever an FOI response which could be deemed as frivolous emerges, there’s always someone to bemoan  the cost of supplying the FOI. Canny councillors point to the fact they are being asked to make cuts, yet the public still have the right to ask for information which costs money to retrieve.  Some police forces now have tickers on their site which say how much has been spent dealing on FOI requests – automated, you understand, to save money, but also making them utterly pointless.

I’ve even seen a number of journalists complaining that other journalists are abusing FOI with such requests. Follow that logic through and councils wouldn’t have to meet in public, because meeting in public on the off chance a journalist might attend is more expensive than signing stuff off on the quiet.

That said, there remains a duty on a journalist using FOI to make sure their story is in context. FOI delivers facts you ask for. Some authorities will provide additional information to add context – Kirklees Council had a policy whereby the council leader decided what context to add – but it should be the duty of a journalist to ensure they use the facts in a rounded way.

James Ball, a journalist at the Guardian, took the Met Police speaking clock story and applied some context:

The Metropolitan Police is a huge organisation: it has more than 35,000 officers and PSCOs, plus more than 13,000 civilian staff. Even trivial amounts of spending per officer quickly adds up.

So what does the spend on the speaking clock represent? The force spent £16,879 on calls to the service in 2010/11. At 31p per call, that’s just under 54,500 calls over the year.

That works out as 1.5 calls to the speaking clock for each officer, or in other words represents each officer in the force using the service just once or twice each year.

Does such context kill the story? Maybe, maybe not. The speaking clock still feels like a waste of money to me, but if we want to retain the right to know, surely we have to make sure those who we pass such knowledge on to do so with as much of the context as possible at their disposal.

One comment

  1. Er – more to the point, my understanding is that the clock is often used in order to check that police station clocks are accurate which is important for ensuring that the times entered on custody records are correct – and that the times given for the audio-recording of interviews with suspects are correct. If these were significantly inaccurate this would potentially lead to challenges in court as to their veracity.

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