Justice CommitteeWritten evidence from the Society of Editors

The Society of Editors has more than 400 members in national, regional and local newspapers, magazines, broadcasting and digital media. It has always supported the principles that underpin the Freedom of Information Act.

The Act has become an essential journalistic tool which has helped create a climate of genuine openness and transparency in British public life.

It is, therefore, vital that any subsequent refinements do not compromise these very real gains.

Any new constraints placed on those making formal requests under the Act will not serve the public interest, playing instead into the hands of organisations wishing to manage the media at the expense of transparency.

The experience of our members and their journalists in using the Act has revealed a number of operational weaknesses.

For example, it has proved to be feeble when applied to requests aimed at finding out specifically why certain decisions were taken. This is a fundamental element of bread-and-butter reporting—addressing the public’s right to know how its money is being spent, and the reasons behind those decisions.

Some local authorities have complained about what they see as the sheer volume of FOI requests submitted to them. That represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the need for and value of the Act. When the public is accused of apathy and the media of trivialisation, they should be pleased rather than critical of such attention. Use of the Act was always going to mean requests, and I must stress that no media organisation makes FOI requests lightly.

Sometimes a journalist may make a number of similar requests for information from local authorities in a given area in order to carry out a comparative analysis.

It has been suggested that the lack of a “motive clause” should be redressed and that in future, people making requests should be forced to explain why they want the information.

We would not wish to see the Act weakened in this way. Important stories in the public interest are more often than not the sum of their parts, turning on micro-details, or a string of them. The effectiveness of the Act as a means of uncovering the truth would be dramatically reduced should journalists be forced to disclose the purpose of their enquiries.

The Freedom of Information Act was introduced partly to combat the creeping secrecy which was spreading through government, local authorities and other agencies. Unfortunately, there is still the very real threat of a return to those darker days if the progress already achieved is not consolidated.

For that reason, we would be concerned to see steps taken towards introduction of any system which introduces categories of documents within departments which would enjoy absolute exemptions. This would merely be an encouragement to retain information under those headings.

Some of our feedback indicates it is by no means unusual for officials to circulate memos marked as ‘restricted’ and ‘policy’ documents which are nothing of the sort, in order to evade the provisions of the Act.

At present, cost limits only apply to the expense of locating and extracting information but does not extend to redaction or any other kind of processing in a response to an FOI request. The rules should stay as they are.

Journalists and campaigners should be free to ask questions in precisely the same way as anyone else. To introduce different categories of information requester would be undemocratic, to say nothing of the attendant difficulties in defining a “journalist” in the first place. The FOI Act is for everyone. Access to information by the press is both necessary and desirable in a healthy society, and more than average use of the FOI Act is an obvious consequence.

It is no exaggeration to say that a central problem for the press in using the FOI Act stems from the fact journalists are already treated differently to others applying for information.

Operational experience of working with it also suggests delays in responding to legitimate requests for information are still cause for concern. The current 20-day limit on replies would be sufficient, if it were adhered to.

Equally, there are too many instances of the deliberate misuse of exemptions, and there should be stiffer and clearly-defined penalties available. Under the current arrangements it is possible for officials to keep information hidden for more than a year. Failing to keep appropriately full records should also be an offence under the Act.

The service offered by press offices is often cited as a reason for making changes to the current the Act. It must, however, be remembered that press offices are working to their organisation’s own remit and are often under pressure. As a result, questions are not always answered fully nor with the precise detail required in response to formal FOI requests.

Without the FOI Act it would frequently be impossible to obtain information which is otherwise unavailable. It would not be possible to double-check whether that information provided by press offices in response to non-FOI requests was accurate and complete.

Finally, the Act suffers from inconsistency, with a wide spectrum of approaches applied by information controllers. In practice this highlights the intransigence of some set against the good example of others.

Encouragement and incentives aimed at ensuring the spirit of the Act is followed to the benefit of all would be valuable. The underlying problem remains in the lack of a clear purpose clause. Without one the Act, with its long lists of exemptions, appears more like legislation aimed at restricting information than what was intended. The idea should be to transform the culture in government and other public bodies from one that restricts the flow of information to one that encourages the release of all information unless there is a good and positive reason not so to do.

February 2012

Prepared 25th July 2012