FOI’s 7-year itch: If in doubt, blame the FOI Act (journalists included)

Based purely on personal experience, discussions about journalism with journalism academics tend to be either baffling or enlightening.

I’m not sure which category a Twitter discussion at the weekend with Prof Tim Luckhurst, former editor at the Scotsman and now of the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent, falls into.

I posted – rather late, admittedly, the latest FOI Friday. It probably wasn’t the strongest collection I’ve ever pulled together, but had some excellent stories in there, not least the Carlisle News and Star’s revelation that councils in Cumbria had £8million of pension money invested in tobacco firms – an interesting challenge for local authorities as they prepare to take on public health responsibilities.

Naturally, I disagreed. His next reply spanned three tweets:

And it wrapped up like this the next day:

On one hand, I find the idea of a champion of journalism – which is what you’d expect a professor of journalism to be – playing down the importance of FOI baffling – but at the same time the misunderstanding of what FOI was meant to be for and how it is used enlightening. It’s also not the first time I’ve encountered these arguments.

First off, I’d argue that all 10 examples this week were, to varying degrees, revealing something which was otherwise unknown. The value and public interest will be best known to the editors of the publications they appeared in. Sheep worrying might raise a smile in a pub, but it’ll be a serious matter to readers of a farming publication. Likewise, if I was finding my operation was being cancelled at a time when hundreds of thousands were being spent on redundancy packages in the NHS, I’d be cross.

I also have yet to meet a reporter who’d shy away from doing what Luckhurst describes as ‘hard investigations’ given half the chance. But both those points are minor compared to the main thrust of Luckhurst’s argument.

Hacking, Watergate and MPs expenses weren’t revealed through FOI, Luckhurst says, but does that mean FOI has failed in its purpose? It’s not meant to be a tool which serves stories up on a plate for journalists. It’s meant to provide anyone with the right to know information. Indeed, Heather Brooke asked for MPs expenses under FOI and the only reason she didn’t get them is because the Government tried its hardest to use FOI exemptions to reveal the outrageous. If ever there was a lesson that the information will find a way out, this was it.

Would it have found its way out had Brooke not asked the questions? We’ll never know. But it takes journalists asking questions – or any member of the public, for that matter – to demonstrate an interest in information.

Then we move on to the idea that FOI is served up instead of investigative reporting. Again, this works on the assumption that you ask a question, get the story served up on a plate and you get your splash. FOI is riddled with pitfalls along the way and FOI is only ever the start of a story, not the story completed. Has it replaced meticulous investigations? Not in my experience – certainly when I began using it in 2005, the newsroom I worked in would do investigations if it thought it was worth the effort, but FOI didn’t replace that. And I believe the same is still true.

FOI isn’t always easy. There’s no guaranteed return. It can be cheap, but then again, so can an investigation. FOI should be an essential tool any investigative journalist is armed with. To my mind, if the story is worth asking the questions about, it’s worth finding the time to pursue – as FOI Friday shows time after time.

Done properly, FOI can help ensure you don’t struggle on a quiet news day, but it takes planning, and it takes an understanding about what the audience is interested in, and an understanding of the subject you are investigating. FOI can be blamed for a lot, but it’s not behind a perceived decline in journalism. It has made information more available – if you’re prepared to ask the right questions – as student journalists across the country will testify.

During the recent FOI hearing in parliament, journalist David Hencke suggested it actually helps whistleblowers tip journalists off to stories – because they know journalists have a route to the information with the right questions. That’s where FOI and investigative journalism meet. The two work together, and aren’t at odds.

FOI is under attack from politicians and civil servants at the moment. Finding it under attack from those within journalism is disappointing. The question I would pose to journalists criticising the use of FOI is: Would you rather we didn’t have it to use at all?

 

 

3 comments

  1. Quite baffled by his argument. Why do hard investigations and FoI have to be exclusive?
    Yes, you can put in an FoI request, get an answer and run a story. Simple. But that doesn’t mean the same newsroom can’t also be running an investigation on another subject or even on a different angle as part of the same story the FoI covers.
    While a modern day Woodward and Bernstein’s are bringing down Governments, why shouldn’t other journalists be asking questions about sheep worrying?
    Odd…

    1. Agree entirely – this is a peculiar kind of straw man – every investigative journalist I know is a user of FOI, and many are borderline evangelical on its use. There is no either/ or about it – and there is no putting the genie back in the bottle with regards priviliged relationships either.

  2. Well said.

    Luckhurst reveals himself to be a superficial fool in the tweets: God help his students if that’s the quality of his analysis and what he passes on to them.

    Chris Moncrieff was heavily anti-FOI too. But maybe his and Luckhurst’s attitudes to FOI stem from the same place – privileged access to politicians and officials and making use of unattributable briefings. What they really don’t like is the idea of the journalist losing that privilege, and having apparently the same access as ordinary members of the public? If so, it’s a misconceived fear, as a press card will still get you into briefings from which the public are excluded, and the knowledge that they write for publications with significant readership will still attract politicians and officials to confide in them.

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