Surreal moments to one side, having spent a challenging – and thought-provoking – hour in front of the Commons Justice Committee answering questions about the media’s use of FOI, I’ve only now had time to reflect on the issues covered.
Three areas of discussion are worth raising in this post: Cost, motive, and the idea of different FOI requirements for different sorts of bodies.
Conservative MP Steve Brine referenced my blog and asked me to expand on a post in which I explained why we potentially have a lot to fear about the review into FOI.
My fear, I tried to explain, was that the issue of the cost of the Freedom of Information Act was in danger of gaining momentum and be used as a cover for those in public authorities who, put bluntly, would rather the Act didn’t exist.
Many politicians and public servants talk about the importance of transparency but aren’t so keen about transparency when it’s not on their terms. That’s the difference between FOI and open data – the former enables the public to decide what they want to see, the latter only allows the public to scrutinise information authorities choose to release.
And cost was an issue which came up time and again. At least three members of the committee, Ben Gummer, Nick Du Bois and Elizabeth Truss, all Conservatives, brought up the issue of cost. The basic thrust of their questions was this: As private businesses, why should media organisations expect public sector authorities to foot the bill for research which leads to stories which in turn sell papers?
Doug Wills, the managing editor of the Evening Standard, summed it up far more eloquently than me when he made the point that responding to a media FOI request is actually quite a cost-effective way of getting information out there, because the media organisation will then disseminate it to many, many people.
My argument – and a similar point was made by journalist David Hencke, who used FOI to reveal the payments scandal at the Student Loans Company – was that as taxpayers, we’d already paid for the information we were seeking to be created and collated, and that if there was a true ‘right to know’ principle, anyone should be allowed to access it.
One argument put forward by the committee was that councils and other organisations are carrying out research on the behalf of journalists. Ms Truss suggested that we’d pay researchers to do it if we didn’t have the Freedom of Information Act. Only we wouldn’t, because we wouldn’t have access to the information in the first place. It wouldn’t be a case of simply passing the cost back to the paper, it would be a case of locking down the information – much of which is information which used to be available through council agendas in the days before secretive and selective cabinet-style structures emerged.
If a charge – and £25 appears to be flavour of the month – emerged, when would it be charged. At the time of asking the question with no guarantee of a getting anything in return? Imagine if a council said to a company ‘We’ll charge you £50 to empty your industrial bin but we can’t tell you when we’ll empty it, if we’ll actually empty it or how much of it we’ll empty.’ Do they apply the charge after the information search has been done – in which case, does the media organisation turn round and decide not to pay because nothing has been turned up? Charging is about recovering cost – it’s about locking down the FOI Act. Finally, does the cost of charging actually cost more than the charge regained? In which case, what’s the point of the charge?
Then there is defining what a journalist is. How do you start to differentiate between a journalist seeking information for a work purpose, or a journalist seeking information for their own use. If I was to request details about the appalling cock-up of a reorganisation Rossendale Council has committed on its bin rounds, am I doing so as a resident or as someone who might pass the information on to the Rossendale Free Press, a newspaper which is part of the company I work for?
Which brings me on to point number two: Motive. One question – a bit of a curve ball – involved asking what the impact of making requesters reveal the motive behind their question would have on the Act. Put simply, it would hand power back to the authorities receiving the requests. If David Hencke had said ‘to prove or disprove what a whistleblower has told me’ when making his request to the Student Loans Company, would that have led to a better response? The FOI Act is supposed to make public bodies accountable, and requesters shouldn’t have to justify their use of the act.
Finally, I’ve been thinking about the notion that different levels of the Act be applied to different bodies. Universities are quite keen on this idea – that they only have to reveal information relating to aspects of their work where public, not private, money has been spent – but experience tells us that doesn’t work. The BBC is one of the few organisations to have additional exemptions at its disposal, primarily around aspects of its work relating to journalism, art or literature, frequently in the past.
I understand the importance of the BBC being able to protect it journalistic sources, but I remember a case where someone was enquiring about the cost of a new phone system in the newsroom – which was rejected on the journalism derogation. The BBC, as a news organisation, uses FOI brilliantly well, thanks in no small part to the work of Martin Rosenbaum (also grilled by the committee). As a pubic authority, however, it is also a good example of an authority which given an inch, will take a mile with FOI exemptions.
I was asked what difference charging journalists would make to use of the FOI Act. Put simply, it would result in reduced use of the Act, with many newsrooms not bothering at all. FOI isn’t an easy route to a story, it’s often a last means to an end. What happens next will depend on how committed the Government is is more interested in controlling what makes the newspaper or the principle of open access to information.