In an age of spin and media management, getting to the heart of a political story can be tougher than ever. Thank goodness then for FOI – when used effectively it can be devastatingly brilliant.
There are two main reasons why I believe FOI is so important for journalists. Firstly, it enables us to ask the questions about the issues we want to cover – rather than the issues the authorities would like us to focus on. Whether that’s the number of parking tickets issued per street, or the number of children who go missing, it’s vital we have this tool to turn to.
The second reason – and one I sense is used less often by journalists – is that it enables us to ask questions about things we suspect are going on, or perhaps have heard are going on, but haven’t been able to get confirmation about. In short – the truth behind the headlines.
And perhaps the best example I’ve seen of that use of FOI is featured in today’s Yorkshire Post, which has lifted the lid on a remarkable row over the staging of part of the Tour De France in Yorkshire next year.
Yorkshire went it alone against a bid supported by UK Government, which have seen part of the race held in Scotland. Yorkshire’s bid won.
Whitehall rarely allows itself to be beaten, however, and using FOI, the YP today reports on the fact the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has tasked VisitEngland with ensuring it is England, rather than Yorkshire, which gets the branding for the event – essentially naming it the “England Grand Depart” rather than the “Yorkshire Grand Depart.”
This is despite the Government, back in March, refusing to give Welcome To Yorkshire, the tourism body in Yorkshire, any money to support its work for the Tour De France because “it is a very high risk project” with “significant financial and logistical challenges.”
Oh, and the documents also revealed “limited confidence in Welcome to Yorkshire’s leadership of the event”.
All the information is contained in heavily redacted documents sent out by the DCMS to the YP. It’s the kind of ‘if walls had ears’ stuff which proves the value of FOI for journalists, and why it’s always worth asking for documents, not just numbers.
The fact that such Government back-biting continued long after the tour stage was given to Yorkshire and not the Government-backed bid, is something those involved will be embarrassed about … and that’s exactly why it’s a great example of the way FOI should be used.