FOI: The council which wants the power to determine what is ‘lazy journalism.’ Really

If you believed many of the public sector submissions to the Government’s Freedom of Information review, this country is blessed with a public sector which is passionate about transparency but gets bogged down by FOI being abused by people who just want to waste time.

And, you know, we’ve got budget cuts, so something needs to give, so how about you just trust us to be open with people. 

That sums up the thrust from many councils. Some, like Manchester City Council, want to see the cost limit on FOI requests reduced, thus keeping more information secret.

Others, like Newcastle, even propose a geographical limit. That’ll be the Local FOI for Local People Act, then.

But perhaps the most horrifying example of public sector arrogance comes from Cumbria County Council, as flagged up by my colleague David Ottewell on Twitter today:

Yes, here’s a council (the plural of which, in Cumbria, appears to be council’s) which wants to decide what is ‘genuine investigative journalism’ and what is ‘lazy journalism.’

Now here’s a story from Holdthefrontpage about the North West Evening Mail’s battle with Cumbria County Council:

A council press office attempted to “kill” a story about a £700-a-day spin doctor it hired, a regional daily has revealed.

The Barrow-based Evening Mail broke the news in October that the authority had appointed local government reputation manager Mark Fletcher-Brown at a time when unprecedented budget cuts meant 1,800 staff could be axed.

Now internal emails between Cumbria County Council communications staff have been made public following a Freedom of information request by North West Evening Mail reporter Caroline Barber.

The response to Caroline’s FoI request, which had initially been rejected on the grounds it would exceed the 20 working day time limit to find the relevant information, has laid bare the tactics used by press officers in their attempts to stop the story appearing.

In an email, the head of the communications department, Sara Turnbull, wrote that news of Mr Fletcher-Brown’s employment was the “last thing we need re. timing just prior to a budget”.

She added: “I’ve suggested to Mark that before we issue anything I’d like to see if I can kill the story. Mark wanted me to check that you are OK with this as a tactic.”

In response Dawn Roberts, assistant director of policy and performance, wrote: “Yes, we would like to be able to kill it.”

Caroline’s initial FOI request had asked whether Mark had tendered for the contract, who he reported to and whether his daily fee included expenses, as well as a query to see internal and external correspondence relating to his employment by the authority.

After it was rejected, she resubmitted the questions as two separate requests, which was successful.

The Evening Mail was then told any follow up questions or clarifications would also have to be submitted as an FOI incurring another 20 working day wait.

No wonder Cumbria County Council wants the legal right to determine what passes for legitimate journalism in Cumbria. Presumably when they say ‘investigative journalism’ they mean ‘investigative journalism which won’t cause red faces in our offices.’

 

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