The biggest threat to Freedom of Information yet? Why all journalists should be worried

A new year, and it would seem, a new threat to Freedom of Information. If 2012 was about pushing back on calls for charges for making Freedom of Information requests, then 2013 looks to be the year we fight attempts to introduce other ways of blocking access to the same information.

The Justice Select Committee spent many hours digging into the impact of FOI before delivering a lengthy report last summer. The Government responded in November and, generally, was quite positive: They kicked the idea of charging for FOI requests into touch.

But they did insist they’d keep on looking at way to reduce the alleged burden FOI is causing public authorities. I’ll come back to this burden a bit later on.

In a debate at the end of last month, justice minister Helen Grant said:

“Despite the many benefits that the Act has brought, we cannot ignore concerns about the burdens that it imposes on public authorities. That is especially important in the current challenging financial climate and at a time when more freedom of information requests than ever are being received. Central Government received 47,000 initial applications in 2011, at a cost of £8.5 million in staff time alone. Local authorities and other public bodies are also affected. We aim to focus our efforts on the disproportionate burdens placed on public authorities by what we call industrial users of the Act.”

That should set an alarm bell ringing in any newsroom which makes regular use of the Freedom of Information Act to hold public authorities to account.

Anything which allows an organisation to target ‘industrial users’ of the Act can only serve one purpose: Turning the FOI Act from what it was intended to be – your right to request information – in a selective access-to-information mechanism controlled by those with a vested to keep their secrets, well, secrets.

But how would the Government determine an ‘industrial user.’ Here’s where things get very worrying:

We will also consider other ways to reduce burdens fairly and proportionately, including addressing where one person or group of people use the Act to make unrelated requests to the same public authority so frequently that it becomes an inappropriate burden.

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The trained journalist who has taken us a step closer to a secret state

Poacher turned gamekeeper Michael Gove

Imagine a world where, if a teacher fled to, say France, with one of his pupils, it wouldn’t be a given that we could name him, show his picture and identify the school where he taught. A world where we’d only be able to report all those details if we could convince a magistrate it was in the public interest to do so. A world where all these obstacles were put in place by a trained journalist.

As of next week, welcome to the UK, 2012. And lets all thanks Michael Gove, the man who began his career at the Aberdeen Press and Journal and who, as education secretary, now has the dubious honour of being the journalist who made it harder for reporters to report the facts.

The Newspaper Society weekly newsletter reports this week that section 13 of  the Education Act 2011 comes into force on Monday. In a nutshell, it bans the media from naming or doing anything to identify a teacher who is the subject of an allegation made by, or on behalf of, a pupil at the same school they teach at.

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Councils and hyperlocal ‘bloggers’: It’s the council system which needs changing, not how people are allowed to cover them

A lot of discussion today around Eric Pickles’ demand that councils ‘open up their public meetings to local news ‘bloggers’ and allow filming of council meetings as standard.

According to the Department of Communities and Local Government, Mr Pickles feels this is essential  ‘to ensure all parts of the modern-day media are able to scrutinise Local Government.’

The press release from the department states: “Local Government Minister Bob Neill has written to all councils urging greater openness and calling on them to adopt a modern day approach so that credible community or ‘hyper-local’ bloggers and online broadcasters get the same routine access to council meetings as the traditional accredited media have.”

Much as this positive statement is welcome, I can’t help but think it misses the point somewhat. The problem with ‘scruntinising local government’ is not about who has what access, but the way in which local government operates.

On the point on hyperlocal bloggers – the government’s term, not mine – having meetings ‘opened up to them’ this should never have been an issue in the first place. Most council meetings are public meetings, and there should be nothing to stop ‘bloggers’ attending these meetings in the first place.

The issue, so far as I can tell, has been the differentiation between ‘blogger’ and mainstream media. The example cited in the press release involved Tameside Council accrediting mainstream media outlets to liveblog from meetings. Tameside’s argument was that too many people liveblogging could have disrupted the meeting.

Tameside appears to be the exception rather than the rule in this respect. If you look at Manchester City Council, it enjoys live coverage from the Manchester Evening News’s political team as well as others who wouldn’t fall into the bracket of ‘mainstream media.’ At the other end of the scale, Trafford Council banned all media from tweeting from a council meeting last year. So it’s by no means normal for councils to treat different parts of the media in different ways. Then the examples of those people who are able to cover meetings live already, such as Jason Cobb in Lambeth and Richard Taylor in Cambridge.

Liveblogging from council meetings should be an essential part of a political journalist’s job – but it’s important that we don’t confuse being able to liveblog with believing we’re holding a council to account.

So, even if we now have a situation where hyperlocal bloggers and the mainstream media are treated on an equal footing when it comes to what you can do in the council chamber,  we won’t actually be any closer to what Pickles described as scrutiny of local government.

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