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FOI: Remembering that FOI is about more than just getting data

Last month, David Cameron described the principle of open data being better than Freedom of Information because it is the process of discovery which is, to use his phrase, ‘furring up the arteries’ of government.

For what it’s worth, I can’t help but think that in central government especially, the furring up is caused by working out how to withhold information – as MPs expenses, the Hillsborough files and the use of private email accounts by Michael Gove’s advisors at the eduction department all prove.

But it shouldn’t be an either/or situation in the first place. As summed up in this Talk About Local post, the difference between FOI and open data is that the former allows the public to set the agenda for what should be released, the latter doesn’t.

Maybe it isn’t that surprising that Government seeks to find parallels between open data and FOI – after all, for journalists, FOI is a quick (but not always reliable) route to data which can make for a good story.

When I compile FOI Friday, I try to pick examples which might be useful to journalists looking for FOI ideas in their area, so data-led stories do dominate a bit.

So I thought it would be worth highlighting an excellent example of using FOI to get letters and emails which make for a great story, courtesy of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle (Disclaimer: The Chronicle is one of the regional daily titles I work with as digital publishing director for Trinity Mirror’s regional websites).

When Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley decided to rename St James’ Park as the Sports Direct Arena, it caused some upset, as you might expect. Things became heated between Newcastle City Council and club when the political leaders decided to write to the BBC and ITV urging them not to use the new name. The club, as you might expect, reacted angrily, threatening legal action if the club felt it had lost revenue as a result of the council’s actions.

All of this would have remained under wraps had it not been for an FOI request by Chronicle reporter Andrew Glover – who used FOI to get hold of the correspondence between the council and the club, from the council.

The club’s letter to the council was published here, and the response here.

It’s an excellent example of FOI being used not for data, but for information – and it’s worth remembering that communications between public bodies and others are covered by FOI (Even if the Department for Education continues to think otherwise).

The story, as you might expect, caused quite a stir and was followed up extensively – although sadly, not even the newest media players in Newcastle felt that linking to the source of the story enhanced the user’s experience. Some things never change, eh?

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