Digital Journalism trends in 2016: The battle for public information at the heart of all reporting, regardless of platform

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.


FOI Friday: The Tories who clearly love the Freedom of Information Act – and 9 other stories made possible by FOI this week

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You don’t need Freedom of Information to expose a politician as a hypocrite. The Daily Mail proved that when it took a matter of hours to call out Chris Grayling after he attempted to ‘shame’ the media for using FOI to get stories!

Grayling, it turns out, was a serial user of FOI when in opposition, using FOI for perhaps the grubbiest purpose of all: Not to get information into the public domain, but to throw bricks at Labour. But who am I to call into question the motives that lie behind an FOI request? Exactly – no-one. Motive shouldn’t matter when it comes to FOI, it’s just about the right of any member of the public to ask any question of authority and having a reasonable expectation that they’ll get an answer.

But while the Tories in Westminster may loathe FOI as they continue to plot their stitch-up to effectively close the Act down, it continues to be a very useful tool to Conservative campaigners elsewhere in the country.

Take the Welsh Tories for example. A quick search of the Conservatives Wales website shows as recently as last month the Tories were pushing FOI-based stories at the Press, such as their outrage at NHS redundancy payouts. They also had no qualms providing attention-grabbing quotes to WalesOnline to support an FOI-based story on redundancies pay outs in councils – the irony of the Tories locally blaming councils for cuts foisted on them by a Conservative government clearly lost on them.

Meanwhile in Scotland, the Scottish Tories remain huge fans of FOI – although it’s worth noting the current review in Westminster wouldn’t impact the FOI Act in Scotland. Only last week, the Tartan Tories used FOI to claim the gulf in educational attainment between children from wealthy families and children from poorer families was now wider than ever. And to reveal the number of homes 999 crews won’t visit. It doesn’t take long to find many more.

So while it’s clear the Tories at the top in Westminster loathe FOI, there are many within the party who continue to make the most of it. Which rather begs the question: Who is driving the plan to axe the act?


FOI Friday: Why FOI beats open data and 9 other stories made possible this week thanks to FOI

The FOI request about theft of petrol from petrol stations is hardly a new one, but that doesn’t alter the fact it sums up why FOI trumps the principle of open data, from a journalistic perspective at least.

The St Helen’s Reporter used FOI to find out how many petrol drive-offs there had been. Answer (see below): lots.

One of the government’s current arguments against FOI is that it can be far more transparent if it just makes departments and public bodies release more data.

The argument, to some extent, has merit. Being more open with data is very welcome, but the problem comes when you only want part of the data, or a level of detail that isn’t available in the data.

The reporters at the St Helen’s Reporter wouldn’t have been able to get this data using, the crime stats which website which is a huge leap forward on what we had before (ie nothing) but still very limited in the data it shares.

The main point of FOI is to give people the right to know – even journalists, despite Chris Grayling’s obtuse outburst this week. Open data alone puts the decision on what we get to know back with the people who hold the data. FOI is the opposite. The two need to co-exist. It doesn’t take a genius to work out why the notion of open data is much more popular with those who hold the information.

So, to the petrol story:


The two Tories showing it’s the Freedom in FOI – and the press in general – they really can’t stand

If ever there was any doubt about the motives behind the Conservatives’ review of Freedom Of Information, leader of the Commons Chris Grayling has surely set the record straight.

Speaking in the Commons this week, he said:

The irony is that the person who said that he regretted the Freedom of Information Act 2000 most was the former Member of Parliament Jack Straw, who introduced it. He said that he looked back on it as one of the things that he had got wrong. This Government are committed to the Act, but we want to ensure that it works well and fairly, and cannot be abused or misused. It is, on occasion, misused by those who use it as, effectively, a research tool to generate stories for the media, and that is not acceptable. It is a legitimate and important tool for those who want to understand why and how Governments make decisions, and this Government do not intend to change that.

His comments have been widely reported. The fact his comments are recorded in Hansard mean Grayling – who previously fell out of favour after announcing that he felt hotel owners had the right to turn gay couples away – can’t complain about being misquoted this time.

You can only speculate as to why he’s said what he has said. Being charitable, maybe he was just being honest. More likely, however, is the fact that the fervour in Whitehall to reign in the the FOI Act means it’s all but a given in many minds that it will be.


Freedom of Information faces its biggest threat yet – here’s why


It shouldn’t be a surprise that a Government is planning to deliver what could be a devastating blow to the Freedom of Information Act. It probably should be a surprise, however, that it has taken so long.

This lunchtime, the Government, still in the first flush of ‘oh, so we really are in charge, aren’t we!’ thinking, announced a ‘commission’ to look at the Freedom of Information Act.

The Government’s position is pretty plain. Michael Gove, the former FOI-dodging education secretary who tried to claim sending emails via gmail and not government accounts meant they weren’t covered by the Act, set out the government’s view pretty clearly shortly after becoming justice secretary.

At the heart of this commission is the concern that civil servants don’t feel they can speak freely for fear of what they say, or more aptly write, ending up becoming public via the Freedom of Information Act. Call me a cynic if you wish, but I spy a smokescreen aimed at making it harder for those in power to be held accountable by those who ultimately pay their wages – you and I.

Why do I think that? Some reasons:


FOI Friday: Prisoner complaints, police redundancies, thefts from bars, dangerous dogs and ‘kebab crimes’

FOI ideas image: Yarn Deliveries

‘Kebab crimes’ in Scarborough < Scarborough News

There’s a saying that a pint and a fight are the ingredients to a great British night out, but an investigation has unearthed the shocking crimes committed in Scarborough’s pizza shops and curry houses by rowdy revellers after they’ve sank one too many.

Scarborough’s ‘kebab crimes’ include bloody beatings, callous charity box thefts and staff being racially abused.

And in one incident, a woman was attacked with a doner kebab.

Our probe found out that 19 crimes were committed in takeaways, restaurants and chippys over the past 12 months.
CCTV and a heavy late-night police presence have helped officers nab the majority of offenders, but North Yorkshire Police have now revealed details of the takeaway offenders still on the loose.


FOI Friday: 34 years on the run, social media at councils, snooping councils and overtime for detectives


The burglar on the run for 34 years < Belfast Telegraph

Thousands of suspected criminals are dodging justice after disappearing while on bail in Northern Ireland, it can be revealed.

Some of them are still on the run more than three decades after they vanished.

The suspects are linked to almost 13,000 crimes, including dozens of sex offences.

Nearly 1,500 individuals have been at large for at least a decade.

The figures have been branded “embarrassing”, with justice officials accused of allowing people to vanish into thin air.

Social media leads to demotion < Daily Post

Public service workers in North Wales have landed themselves in hot water over inappropriate use of the internet and posts on social media.

A Freedom of Information request by the Daily Post reveals nearly 60 council employees, health workers and fire service staff have either been sacked, suspended, disciplined or demoted since 2013.

Thousands of local authority, police, fire, health and university employees have access to the internet at work, with varying levels of personal use allowed.


FOI Friday: Jollies in Cannes, guilty police, empty homes, naughty soldiers and road rage incidents

So does a trip to MIPIM pay off? < Brixton Buzz

£20,000 was taken by Lambeth Council from four property developers to help fund the trip to Cannes by four council employees. A Freedom of Information Request shows that although “conversations took place” at MIPIM World back in March, no actual deals were reached following the local authority jolly.

Which must have been disappointing for all involved…

MIPIM World is the international property fair for corporate developers. It is the Cannes Film Festival equivalent for folk who believe in gentrification. Lambeth Council wanted a piece of the action, but understandably felt slightly nervous about spending £20,000 of local authority money on a trip to the South of France.

Police found guilty of crimes in last five years < Belfast Live

Forty-six police officers in Northern Ireland have been found guilty of committing crimes in the past five years.

According to figures released to Belfast Live by PSNI, the law-keepers have turned lawbreakers by committing a variety of crimes including tampering with a motor vehicle and death by dangerous driving.


FOI: Thinking beyond the obvious when asking for data

Last week, many newspapers and other media outlets carried stories triggered by and FOI which asked for details of the crimes committed by children.

Nothing unusual in that, given how common the ‘x number of 10 year olds arrested for x’ which have been made possible by FOI over the years.

But this particular FOI – a product of a partnership between security firm ADT and the Victim Support charity – tackled the subject differently, and there’s a handy tip for all journalists in the way they did it.

The FOI request asked for the number of burglaries committed in an area, and the number which could be traced back to young people under 18.

The result was an eye-catching headline for the partnership, which is seeking to raise attention to the issue of burglaries committed by young people.

The Victim Support press release states:

Nottinghamshire, Greater Manchester and London had the highest proportion of burglaries committed by juvenile offenders. Where an offender had been identified those police forces found under-18s were involved in 43 per cent, 41 per cent and 37 per cent of break-ins respectively.

The police force area with the lowest percentage of burglaries by under-18s was Wiltshire, at just three per cent, followed by Norfolk (9.8 per cent), Thames Valley (13.9 per cent) and Durham (14 per cent).

A great example of looking beyond the obvious headline possibilities when thinking up what to ask for when submitting an FOI. An absolute number can carry a great headline, but a well-crafted comparison can take a story in an entirely different direction.

FOI Friday: Bouncing babies, sex offence tickings off and pensioners on drugs

FOI ideas image: Yarn Deliveries

Some very bouncing babies < Huddersfield Examiner

Hundreds of Huddersfield’s bouncing babies are tipping the scales more than 2lbs above the national average.

Figures reveal about 100 babies per year are born at Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust weighing in excess of 9lb 9oz.

The national averages are 7lb 8oz for a boy and 7lb 4oz for a girl.

Hospital records show that from 2012 to 2014 there were 314 newborns recorded as weighing 9lb 9oz or more.

Sex offences which just result in a telling off < Whitby Gazette

Police are letting paedophiles and sex offenders escape without a criminal record – meaning they could still work with children.

That’s the finding of a Yorkshire Regional Newspapers investigation which has revealed Community Resolution Disposals (CRD), designed to punish minor, first time offenders, have been handed out to people who had admitted possessing child porn or committing a sexual assault.

Angry campaigners fear that it could allow potentially dangerous sex offenders to “slip under the net” – and that North Yorkshire Police are letting serious offenders “off the hook”