FOI Friday: Brexit and the NHS, NHS secrecy, police secrecy and street-level data success


Brexit continues to be a happy hunting ground for information-hungry journalists … even if the story once again appears to be about the reluctance of those in power to actually talk about their planning for the biggest British government change in a generation.

This week, GazetteLive in Teesside reported on the reliance local NHS services have on EU workers, who may well be feeling a little less loved by the UK as a result of the Brexit vote.

More than 10% of NHS workers in Teesside are from the EU – people who presumably were surprised to find themselves living in an area which voted strongly for Brexit.

Teesside voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU last year. Middlesbrough’s Brambles Farm and Thorntree ward had the highest ‘leave’ percentage in the UK, despite the North-east receiving more EU funding per head than anywhere else in Britain.

It isn’t known how bosses at the South Tees trust – which runs James Cook University Hospital – feel about the impact Brexit could have on staff.

It also declined a Freedom of Information request for internal communications over Brexit’s potential impact on staffing.

The Gazette has now contacted the trust for additional comment.

Why the secrecy? Hopefully, for the sake of NHS users in Teesside, they’ve done more research into the problems posed by Brexit than David Davis, the Brexit secretary, has…

Six months on from Grenfell

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FOI Friday: Why the silence on Brexit?


It’s probably no surprise to learn that the Government is hiding behind the public interest exemption when it comes to people asking FOI questions relating to Brexit issues.

Take Kent Online, the website of the Kent Messenger group which, as its name suggests, covers the county most likely to be impacted if border issues aren’t resolved by 2019.

Political editor Paul Francis reported this week:

The government is facing criticism after it refused to release details of any contingency plans it had drawn up to cope with possible disruption to Kent’s road network after Brexit.

The Department for Transport ruled it would not be in the public interest for details of any of its plans to be put into the public domain.

It has rejected a Freedom of Information request by Kent Business for details of any proposals to mitigate the impact of Brexit in 2019 should the UK leave without a deal.

Brexit by its very nature involves the whole of the UK – but in different ways in different places. It has the potential to be an FOI goldmine, not just at a national government level, but at a local level too with many local institutions also presumably making plans.

Will local bodies be more prepared to share? It seems remarkable that details relating to the biggest change to UK’s status in a generation are deemed not to be in the public interest for release…

Old favourites and all that

The Daily Post in North Wales published a list of parking ticket hot spots based on the last three months’ activity. It’s an old favourite of an FOI but also a great example of a useful one which updates regularly.

The parking ticket hotspots of North Wales have been revealed.

Figures released by five of the region’s six local authorities under Freedom of Information laws has revealed the spots where motorists are most likely to be slapped with parking tickets.

They have also shown that at least £300,000 has been raked in by councils for parking fines over just a three month period, between July and September this year.

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FOI Friday: The power of FOI, pesky press officers, school place race and mouse droppings


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.

Holdthefrontpage reports:

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:

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FOI Friday: Affordable housing, music festivals, busy civil servants and more

Making hopefully not another false dawn return, here’s a round-up of stories from the local media in the UK which have been made possible thanks to the Freedom of Information Act

Lack of affordable housing < Brixton Buzz

If you read just one story this week from this list, make it this one. It’s a great example of local knowledge being used to mine the responses to an FOI request posted on Whatdotheyknow.

The number of new ‘affordable’ homes that Lambeth Council plans to build at Cressingham Gardens has dropped to 16. A Freedom of Information request has shown that this is the figure that the Labour Group is now aspiring towards.

We reported on Brixton Buzz yesterday how an FoI was able to flush out the land details of where Lambeth wants to build new homes. This is part of a £55m grant from the Greater London Authority.

We have now scrutinised this document a little deeper. Buried away in the data is the exact number of affordable homes for each site.

It was with some surprise that we found that an entire estate looks like it will be bulldozed so that only an extra 16 affordable homes can be built.

Crimes committed at a music festival < Liverpool Echo

Summer music festivals are big business, but the crimes committed at them can be hard to get access to other than perhaps the headline stats.

The Liverpool Echo was able to report what went on at dance festival Creamfields thanks to an FOI request:

Two allegations of rape were reported to police at this year’s Creamfields festival .

Data released under the Freedom Of Information Act (FOI) showed the incidents were said to have taken place on Saturday, September 26.

The crime reports were revealed as Cheshire police published data relating to a request for details of violent and sexual offences alleged to have taken place at the four-day dance music festival.

There were 12 offences of violence, two of which were assaults without injury on police constables – in both cases involving revellers spitting at the officer.

What are those civil servants up to? < WalesOnline

A tidal lagoon off the cost of South Wales is obviously big news. A review into whether to have a tidal lagoon was also big news. But the silence has been deafening since the review happened. So WalesOnline asked what had been happening.

Lots of reports have been written, apparently:

Around 50 officials in the UK Government have produced “a very significant” number of reports about the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, which remains in limbo.

The case of the £1.3 billion energy project is being handled by the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which has remained tight-lipped since an independent review into tidal lagoon energy was published in January.

In a response to a Freedom of Information request by WalesOnline about what has been going on behind the scenes since the review and, prior to that, the granting of planning permission for the lagoon in 2015, a BEIS statement said: “We estimate that a minimum of 50 staff have worked on the assessment of the proposed Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon to date.”

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Local journalism’s mission: Becoming obviously relevant again

If you read just one piece of journalism-related stuff this weekend, make sure it’s Mary Hamilton’s 13 learnings from working at the Guardian.

One of the most successful digital journalists to have begun their career in the regional press, Mary’s article on Medium is rightly winning plaudits, and deserves the widest possible audience.

For me, it’s point 7 which is the one our industry still has the furthest to go to crack:

7. Platforms are not strategies, and they won’t save news.

Seriously. If someone else’s algorithm change could kill your traffic and/or your business model, then you’re already dead. Google and Facebook are never going to subsidise news providers directly, and nor should they. Stop waiting for someone to make it go back to the way it was before. If what you do is essential to your audience, so essential that their lives wouldn’t be the same without it, then you should be able to monetise that. If it’s not, your first priority should be to admit that and then get on with changing it.

Facebook and Google are as successful as they are because they’ve found a thing that people want every day, and use it. And audience research I’m currently looking at suggests many local media readers visit the same sites every day via these platforms. But when did we stop being essential to readers?

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Tips for charities looking to build relationships with regional media


A few weeks ago, I was part of a panel discussion at an event held by the Media Trust, an organisation which helps charities and community groups develop relationships with media organisations so their work can be discovered by those who could benefit from it.

The theme of the session I was involved with was called ‘engaging the media’ and for an hour or so, led by Jon Snow of Channel 4, a group of us discussed how charities could improve their chances of coverage in the modern media world.

There was tough and thought-provoking questions from the ‘floor’ too, an audience made up (as far as I could tell) mainly of relatively small organisations which don’t have the sizeable marketing and media teams some of the household name charities can rely on.

The session gave me a lot to think about – not least around how charities can form meaningful relationships with local media. Here are some thoughts (with apologies in advance to anyone who reads them and thinks I’m stating the obvious!):

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Journalism doesn’t need a subsidy from Google – it just needs a fairer deal


In his latest blog post on Holdthefrontpage this week, former Birmingham Mail editor Steve Dyson argued that the last thing Google and Facebook should do is give in to demands from the News Media Association to subsidise the regional press.

Steve’s argument is that the NMA represents big companies like Trinity Mirror (my employer), Johnston Press and Newsquest, each of which makes lots of money, so they shouldn’t get subsidies.

For once, I agree with Steve. Facebook and Google have no place subsidising the Press in the UK.

They do, however, need to do more to ensure that those paying for the creation of the content which helps power their digital services are rewarded fairly for it.

Which is exactly what the NMA – which incidentally represents an awful lot of small publishers, including some of the ones Steve argues should be subsidised by the internet giants – is seeking.

Not a handout, but fair compensation. The NMA argues for the latter, not as Steve suggests, for the former.

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