FOI Friday: 10 stories which show how FOI helps local media make a difference

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This week is Local Newspaper Week, run by the newspaper industry and the Newspaper Society, to promote the important work done by the local and regional press. The theme this year has been ‘making a difference’ – highlighting the campaigns regional newspapers have run which have helped change the communities they live in for the better.

Meanwhile, various famous and important folk have explained how they feel local newspapers make a difference for them.  There are many ways local media can make a difference for the better – be it a newspaper, a newspaper’s digital presence, or a hyperlocal site which has no roots at all in the ‘traditional’ media – but the way I wanted to focus on today was the use of Freedom of Information (FOI).

Journalists get a lot of stick for the way FOI is used to generate stories, but there are very few who disagree with the principle that FOI should help hold authorities to account. That’s how FOI used by the regional Press can make a difference. Each week when I am compiling FOI Friday, I find lots of examples of great FOIs which don’t really fit the bill for FOI Friday as they are unique to one area and hard to replicate elsewhere.

So, this week, I thought I’d share 10 FOI stories I’ve seen which fit the bill of having the potential to make a difference:

Proving the north/south divide < Yorkshire Post

Newspapers in the north face a balancing act between standing up for their region when it is clearly getting second-class treatment from Government, and ensuring it doesn’t look as though it – and the region – just has a chip on its shoulder. The best way to ensure this balance is maintained is to get evidence – as the Yorkshire Post did when it sought to find out what average cultural grants from Arts Council England were for councils in London compared to those in Yorkshire. Yorkshire councils get around £13 per member of the population, London councils nearer £42.

Holding councillors to account < Worcester News

FOI can be really powerful for getting the background to decisions which otherwise authorities wouldn’t have to open up about. The Worcester News example here shows how using FOI can uncover some startling things. The chief fire officer for Worcestershire needed a back operation and asked if the fire authority would contribute towards him going private to speed up the process. In fairness to the chief fire officer, he made it clear he intended to go private regardless of whether the authority contribute or not and was just asking the question.

But through FOI, the News was able to reveal that the money – since repaid – was given after a meeting of just four of the fire authority’s 25 members – mainly local councillors – which was not minuted and which was not relayed to the other members of the fire authority.

The green light for the funding was given despite advice it wouldn’t save the fire service any money and could set a precedent for many more such claims.

Given the fire chief was just ‘asking the question’ – as emails released reveal – this is a story more about the bizarre conduct of local fire authority members, whose actions and decisions have only come to light thanks to hard work by the Worcester News and the use of FOI.

Refusing to take no for an answer < Coventry Telegraph

The decision to move Coventry City out of Coventry was, no surprise, big news for the Coventry Telegraph, as was the promise of the club’s owners that they would build a new stadium close to Coventry. But where? They wouldn’t say. In a great example of using FOI to get round the fact private organisations aren’t covered by FOI, the Telegraph put in requests to all 10 councils nearby to find out if there had been discussions about building a stadium in their area.

The supporters trust has followed up that FOI with a similar one a couple of months later, as the impasse over CCFC’s return to the area remains.

Getting behind the big numbers on regeneration < Dover Express

Journalists are familiar with big pledges of Government cash to help towns regenerate themselves, usually quickly followed by artists impressions of just how brilliant the town will look. Returning to find exactly how the cash has been spent several years on can be a challenge. The Dover Express uncovered that over £8million had been spent on the Dover Town Investment Zone, yet not a brick had been laid – the cost had been legal fees and land purchases. The result is quite what many would have expected … lots of empty land.

Uncovering secret, but important, conversations < Teesside Evening Gazette

One of the types of FOI stories which gets most overlooked on FOI Friday is the sort which reveals correspondence between two parties – this is because these are the least likely to be replicable elsewhere. However, they are perhaps the most telling types of FOI.

The Teesside Evening Gazette uncovered a story of huge importance when it sought correspondence between Cleveland Police and the area’s coroner after it became clear some families were waiting up to two years for an inquest. The correspondence provided a devastating insight into what the police and coroner thought of each other – not least the fact the coroner felt the police treated grieving relatives with ‘disdain.’

Getting behind the headlines of a national story < WalesOnline

When Labour MP Ann Clwyd claimed her husband has been treated like a battery hen in the days before he died in hospital, it became a national story, raising concerns about hospital care and leading David Cameron to ask the Welsh MP to look into the complaints system for patients in the NHS.  But what of the local investigation by the health board in Wales which provided the care?

Ms Clwyd made more than 30 points in a complaint to the health board, which ran investigation which ended in April 2013. But details of the the report only emerged in April 2014 after WalesOnline persisted in asking for findings. A summary report has been released, as a second investigation is ongoing.

From the tone of the comments from the health board, they’d rather not have released the summary findings, while Ms Clwyd says she think it is inappropriate that the findings have been released before the second investigation is complete. But what of the thousands of people who rely on that health board and have a right to know what the response to the claims were? Surely they have a right to know – and thanks to FOI and WalesOnline, they now do.

Selling off the dredgers, before the floods < Western Daily Press

I’m not sure where this FOI started, but it’s certainly a good one. Everyone remembers the flooding which hit Somerset for much of the winter. The authorities were quick to say they were doing all they could, but could they have done more to prevent it from being as bad as it was? Certainly, this FOI suggests things could have been better – revealing as it does that the Agency sold its own dredging equipment for £200k and spent £800k hiring equipment instead.

The cost of doing politics < Harrow Observer/GetWestLondon

Perhaps I’m just naive, but I didn’t realise political parties got allowances at councils to run their offices, with the level of funding dependent on how many councillors they have. Somebody at the Harrow Observer clearly did, and using FOI, delivered a story which showed the financial cost of political goings on which led to the creation of an independent party on the council. The Observer reported:

A Freedom of Information Act response revealed Labour is £35,961 in credit, the Conservatives are £10,019 in the black while the Independent Labour Group is £28,969 in the red.

Understanding the fallout of Ofsted inspections < Bath Chronicle

The fact all state schools are subject to the Freedom of Information Act is a fact often forgotten by journalists. The reason for this is I suspect because FOIing one school can often mean FOIing 30 to get a picture across an area. But there are times when an incident is specific to just one school, as this example from the Bath Chronicle reveals. It sought correspondence between the school and government bodies after the school’s Ofsted rating tumbled from ‘outstanding’ to ‘special measures.’ The fact the letter began ‘Dear Michael’ was just a bit of added zest for the story.

And the one where FOI gets held to account < Derby Telegraph

It’s one thing to seek and find under FOI, it’s another to receive information gained from FOI. The Derby Telegraph looked more closely into claims from insurance firm LV= that Derby had one of the longest roadwork backlogs in the country, with some 930 roads needing repairs. Derby Council, when asked, claimed there 930 cases where resurfacing or ‘patching’ could be required, but they had not been checked yet. The council’s argument is that until they are checked, they can’t go on to a backlog list, as they are just requests.

It could just be semantics I suppose, but the Telegraph’s handling of the story is a reminder that FOI hands journalists a great ability to make a difference through empowering readers with information, but it must be treated with care, attention, and occasionally, a little bit of scepticism.

When it comes to making a difference, regional journalists show every week they are capable of doing that just by doing their jobs. FOI is a powerful tool to help them do their jobs. The most effective way to make a difference is to empower residents with the information they need to form opinions on the world around them. In an age of information control at every turn, FOI is crucial. 

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