FOI: The council which doesn’t want you to know the things it expects you to want to know about

foiA while ago, there was a rather inspired FOI request put forward by the Norwich Evening News, asking police in Norfolk for copies of all press releases and statements prepared on a ‘if asked’ basis – ie they aren’t proactively released.

A friend of mine who works in PR Tweeted me at the time to say that such an FOI at the local authority he worked at would be a nighmare … for them. Which obviously would be a brilliant result for the local newspaper.

To me, it’s the classic example of an FOI working really well – it involves the journalist knowing how an authority operates and targeting specific information carefully.

Given that the authority prepared the information for release if asked, it really shouldn’t have a problem releasing that information when asked. At least, that’s why I think.

But I don’t work for Camden Council – which appears to honestly believe that it shouldn’t tell you about the things which it thinks are so newsworthy they have prepared statements about in the expectation that you’ll want to know about them.

After all, journalists don’t write stories which aren’t intended to interest readers, do they?

Richard Osley, deputy editor of the Camden New Journal, put in an FOI request to Camden Council asking for any ‘if asked’ statements to be released to him.

The council said no. He appealed. The council said no again, arguing that the release would “prejudice effective conduct of public affairs”.

How so? The council didn’t explain. To me, this is a very curious reading of the notion of the exemption on the grounds of effective conduct of public affairs. My understanding is that this exemption can be applied only if an expert within the authority believes it will impede the ability of the authority to do what it needs to do.

An example of this might be that officers at a council don’t want to give advice on a controversial policy for fear of that advice being made public. Whether or not a council is better off with advice which those experts giving it aren’t prepared to put their name to is an argument for another time.

But in this case, this isn’t about asking for information which perhaps wouldn’t have been made available to a council if those offering it had known it might be made public – it’s about asking for information a council is prepared to make public if a reporter asks the right question.

In other words, Camden Council is using an FOI exemption to hide things which it feared would come out, but which never did. That, as Osley points out, is more ‘right to no’ than ‘right to know.’

As Osley says on his blog:

“These statements, after all, were compiled for public consumption by a public institution paid for by the public and, albeit indirectly, we are now asking for statements that would have already been provided had we asked earlier.”

The FOI exemption used by Camden is a qualified one – which means it can be over-ruled if there is a public interest to do so. If a council feels the need to prepare a press statement on something, can there really be a public interest to keep it a secret?

No, I don’t think so. And nor do many other authorities either.

 

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