This is the second in a series of posts between now and the end of the year looking at key themes I think will emerge during the course of 2016. The first, about social journalism, can be found here.
The danger in writing posts predicting trends for 2016 is that it can become a wish list rather than a look at things which evidence suggests are going to happen. To that end, there’s no doubt I’m passionate about Freedom of Information, and angry at the threat it currently faces from the Government’s rather one-sided (sorry, open-minded) review in the 10-year-old Act.
And there’s also a danger that I could try and crow-bar an issue into a digital trends blog post just because it means a lot to me. But as print, TV, radio and internet news providers all find themselves converging in the same digital space, it should be abundantly clear that our old challenges are as relevant as ever – and never more important than now.
I can predict with some confidence that a good chunk of 2016 will be spent fighting off further threats to the access journalists enjoy – and indeed, would take for granted if they weren’t always under threat – from various government initiatives.
This isn’t a party political issue, it’s a those in power vs those trying to hold those to account issue. In theory, an age of digital news should bring with it greater transparency because news travels faster, and everyone is empowered to have a voice which can travel.
And to an extent, it’s true. But that greater voice has also coincided with plenty of double-speak about accountability and transparency which, evidence suggests, will continue next year.
Trading the right to know
Perhaps most worrying is the Government’s ability to put access to information on the table as a bartering tool to get people to do what it wants. The most obvious example of this is in the government’s recent green paper looking at the higher education sector, which essentially seeks to make it easier for private companies to get involved in higher education.
Hidden away in that plan is the potential offer of removing the burden of FOI from universities. The argument here is that tuition fees – which fund universities these days – isn’t actually public funding. It’s not the only example by any stretch – persuading the Government to place Academies, and by extension Free Schools, under FOI was a fight which was no means guaranteed to be successful, although it was.
More and more private companies are carrying out work paid for by the public purse, and work which if carried out by the public sector would be covered by FOI. Once done by the private sector, there is no scope to prod, poke and probe through FOI. As digital journalists, this puts journalists at a significant disadvantage.
The accountability gimmicks
It’s hard to tell whether ministers get the importance of accountability or not. Certainly, the evidence suggests they don’t believe it’s important to make sure their missives on the issue are stuck to.
Take, for example, the Government’s determination to make all public bodies issue details of any spending over £250? Four years on, and this is what a search of Lancashire County Council throws up:
According to this, £29m have been paid to Sita UK Ltd for a landfill. But it asks far more questions than it answers – questions which a reporter is at the mercy of a council to answer. Check out entry number three too – £4.5m for a waste PFI plant project involving a company whose name has been redacted. How on earth can a spend of £4m for a waste PFI project be redacted?
In 2011, transport minister Mike Penning made a big fuss about compelling police forces and councils to release speed camera data. Four years on, and here’s what you see on the Lancashire road safety partnership page:
It doesn’t work. So much for enforcing accountability, as Mr Penning promised. So when the government insists open data is important to them, we need as journalists to be ready to challenge their commitment to even basic transparency.
The big devolution gamble
Perhaps the biggest reason for including the battle for public information in a list of digital trends in 2016 is the growth of non-traditional news sources which provide accountability journalism. The hyperlocal sector is one such example, and the On The Wight site perhaps the best example within that sector. And I have plenty of audience data from the titles I work with at Trinity Mirror to be confident that public interest journalism, which relies on access to public information, matters to local readers.
The current government, like many before it, is determined to shake up the way the public sector works. That may or may not be a good thing, and there’s certainly a compelling argument for devolving decisions to regions. But with it there has to be a level of transparency and accountability we haven’t seen with other public sector shake-ups.
Police and Crime Commissioners, a 2012 invention, may be accountable under FOI, but the access they grant to information and decision-making varies greatly by area. Clinical Commissioning Groups, which replaced primary care trusts on the grounds that GPs should have a greater, more local say, on how NHS cash is spent, have also failed to be easily accountable. They operate in different ways, often collaborating to cover the same areas served by PCTs, with only the most basic of information shared in agenda papers. As a way of making health funding more accountable locally, it’s a dismal failure. If you think it doesn’t matter, read this story from The Times.
In comparison with the proposed devolution planned by the Government, these two examples are small change. But they signify – at best – the Government’s failure to plan in structures and processes which ensure scrutiny by journalists sits at the heart of government.
Transparency is often praised by ministers as essential to public life. Their actions, sadly, often speak louder than words. Regardless of platform, journalism needs to fight for increased access at all times. In 2016, I suspect we’ll be spending time fighting just for right to maintain the access we’re currently afforded. And that’s not a great place to be.