The power of FOI confirmed in Essex
You don’t have to look far to find critics of the Freedom of Information Act within journalistic circles. It’s not a replacement for investigative journalism, it’s too easy to ignore, it’s never going to uncover Watergate and so on.
And, of course, if the point of FOI was to replace investigative journalism, then it would of course not be a good thing. It should be seen as another tool to help us do the job. And rather than bemoaning the tool isn’t as good as it could be, lets make the most of what we’ve got while always asking for more.
It can make a difference, as the Yellow Advertiser series in Essex showed this week, when it emerged an inquiry into historic child sex abuse had been re-opened for a second time thanks to the paper’s investigation.
Last year Essex Police announced it would probe allegations of offences committed in the 1980s and 1990s against children, particularly boys in local authority or foster care, following a Yellow Advertiser investigation into claims of an establishment cover-up.
Detectives had summoned the Basildon-based Advertiser to force headquarters in Chelmsford last week to announce the end of the investigation, codenamed Operation SANDS.
However, at the briefing, the paper handed over a document containing detailed allegations about more than 10 men and women based in and around Southend in the 1980s.
Editor Mick Ferris said: “We are pleased Essex Police has reopened the case for a second time, once again due to information brought forth by the Yellow Advertiser.
“Our historic abuse investigation began three years ago when we discovered, through Freedom of Information, a series of compensation payments authorised by Essex Council. The council refused to answer even basic questions about those payments.”
FOI was never meant to replace anything – journalism which makes a difference still requires determination and many other skills. But as a tool to help get to the truth, we’re far better off with it than without it.
How FOI can beat ‘open data’ time and again
Digital newsrooms know few stories engage local readers more effectively than zero-star hygiene lists of restaurants. The data is freely available, and regularly updated – but only tells half of the story.
Behind the zero star rating lives a layer of detail and information which can often only be extracted thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.
The Derby Telegraph used FOI this week to look at why a pizza takeaway was given zero stars:
The report has only just been released to the Derby Telegraph following a Freedom of Information request:
When they visited the site on Abbey Street in July, food hygiene inspectors found mouse droppings on food preparation surfaces that were used that day to prepare raw meats and ready-to-eat salads.
They also found the droppings on shelves where food packaging was stored and behind a microwave.
Much better than just saying zero stars surely!
The problem with FOI and press officers
Problems with press officers getting too close to the FOI process persist at councils across the country. This example from the Hackney Citizen, via its ‘Titbits’ column this week, was a new one one on me though:
Hackney Council has reaffirmed its commitment to transparency by rejecting a Freedom of Information request over a minor error in the question. The Citizen had asked for the Red-Amber-Green fire safety ratings for Hackney schools the council gave to the Department for Education (DfE). But the council turned this down, noting that the ratings were not in fact given to the DfE. Where could the Citizen have got the idea they were? Why, the council’s press office!
Other FOI stories I’ve seen this week: