BethMellor’s Weblog

Postgraduate journalism, news and views.

FOI: Holding public bodies to account or wasting tax-payers’ money?

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There is no doubt that the Freedom of Information Act has been a great boon to journalists. It has given us the right to access important information about public bodies and elected officials which not only makes for great stories but also helps to hold these organisations and individuals to account – perhaps one of the main reasons that many of us wanted to become journalists in the first place. The Press Gazette reported earlier this year that over 1,000 stories had been written in the past two years based upon disclosures under FOI, including stories revealing significant information about the Iraq War and about corruption in many public bodies.

However in some cases it seems that the FOI Act has actually made it harder for journalists to get hold of information within a reasonable time-frame. Chasing up councils for information about test purchasing schemes for cigarettes (where the council sends under-16’s to attempt to buy cigarettes in shops) for a colleague at The Scotsman made for an incredibly frustrating morning last week. Whilst the information I wanted was very straightforward, and would have taken council press officers about 10 minutes to find out, several councils refused to give me the information. Instead, they said they were going to treat the query as an FOI request, and were passing it on to dedicated FOI officers who would get back to me in 20 days.

Colleagues at The Scotsman said that although they thought the FOI Act was invaluable in terms of holding public bodies to account, it had also provided organisations with someone else to pass the buck to, which, on occasion, has made their jobs harder.

Pursuing other FOI requests has also been a learning curve. Having obtained some potentially newsworthy information about the Scottish Parliament, I called up the press office to try to get some supplementary information to back-up my findings. The FOI officer, unsurprisingly, told me I would need to put in another request for it, which would take another 20 days.

I then got into a conversation with the FOI officer, who was formerly a journalist. She advised me that the best strategy with FOI requests is to put in as many as possible, because 90 per cent of the time they don’t reveal anything newsworthy. On the other hand, she said, you have to remember that you use tax-payers’ money each time you make an FOI request. Paying FOI officers to pursue countless requests which have no real focus is arguably not the best way to spend public money.

Heather Brooke's book about the FOI Act

Heather Brooke's book about the FOI Act

Of course, it is important that the FOI Act exists as an incentive to openness in public bodies. When used by experienced journalists like Heather Brooke as a way to hold organisations to account, it is a fantastic aid not only to journalism but to an open democracy. But it is not safe from being abused by either side: organisations can use it as an excuse not to reply any sooner than 20 days, and journalists can perhaps be guilty of using it a bit too indiscriminately.

Written by bethmellor

December 21, 2008 at 3:33 pm

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