Anthony Longden Column: Diluting Freedom on Information Act is start of important fight for journalists
By the time you read this, it is likely the first steps will have been taken to disembowel the Freedom of Information Act.
November 20 was the deadline for submissions to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information.
Well, it is certainly called ‘independent’, but after a quick look at its membership you could be forgiven for thinking it is an establishment stitch-up aimed at hobbling one of the most effective means that journalists have of holding those in authority to account ever to reach the statute books in this country.
It is nothing short of astonishing that the Freedom of Information Act was passed in the first place.
Tony Blair’s government brought it in, but the former prime minister has regretted it ever since. In his 2010 memoir, A Journey, he condemns himself: “You idiot. You naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”
Blair claims he was swept along on a wave of post-general election euphoria and that his blunder – as he repeatedly describes it, was ‘…so utterly undermining of sensible government’.
Blair’s willing sidekick at the time, his Home Secretary Jack Straw, helped to introduce the FOI Act, and he, too, appears to have had a total change of heart. He vetoed release of the cabinet minutes covering the Iraq war, and is determined to see wider restrictions slapped on everything to do with policy development and ministerial communication.
Despite all this, he is now sitting on that ‘independent’ commission on FOI. Are we seriously to believe he will be approaching this vitally important work with an open mind?
Straw is joined on the commission by former Tory Home Secretary and ex-party leader Lord (Michael) Howard of Lympne; Ofcom’s chairwoman, Dame Patricia Hodgson who has complained about the cost of having to comply with FOI; and Lord (Alex) Carlile of Berriew, formerly the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, a fan of draconian control orders introduced under the highly controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 and of the various incarnations of the Snoopers’ Charter, aka the Investigatory Powers Bill.
The chairman of the commission is Lord (Terry) Burns, a former Whitehall mandarin whose instincts, it’s reasonable to imagine, are to keep the workings of government and civil service out of the limelight.
There is no-one, then, with a journalistic background or any interest in maintaining an effective degree of access to information.
Such was the concern over the skewed composition of this grouping, that a letter co-ordinated by the Campaign for Freedom of Information and signed by a host of organisations, was sent to prime minister David Cameron (https://www.cfoi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/FOI-letter-to-PM.pdf ).
You can tell things are bad when you see that the signatories include the Daily Mail, The Sun and their most uneasy of bedfellows Hacked Off. Now, who could have imagined them on the same side of the argument as the tabloids?
The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, whose job it is to manage the competing tensions of protection of certain data, with the public’s right to know information –believes the FOI Act remains fit for purpose.
He is particularly concerned at the possibility of the introduction of a range of charges for making information requests under the Act. The ICO’s submission to the commission states: “The Commissioner is concerned that a flat fee would be a disproportionate measure because of its deterrent effect on a wide range of requests and requesters.”
When a €15 charge was introduced under Ireland’s FOI law in 2003, the volume of requests crashed to 25% of its previous level, and this suggests anyone – very often a reporter – who has to make a series of requests to learn more about a particular issue, or who wants to conduct comparative research relating to various authorities and organisations, will quickly find the cost of doing so deterrent.
Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, believes any tinkering with the Act now will throw us into an information Dark Age, where it will be made far easier for authorities to conceal information.
The public’s ability to understand and influence decisions would be seriously eroded, and it will be increasingly difficult to hold these powerful authorities and institutions to account.
Background to this can be found here: https://www.cfoi.org.uk/campaigns/stop-foi-restrictions/
Incredibly, when the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information held an official briefing for reporters on the work it would be carrying out, it barred them from reporting who had said what, or even who was present – not the model start from the body looking at transparency and the public’s right to know.
If, as is widely anticipated, the commission recommends sweeping and damaging ‘reforms’ to the FOI Act, we must all be prepared to fight to preserve what has proven to be truly positive and game-changing legislation.
For updates, look at #HandsOffFOI on Twitter.
“Publicity is one of the purifying elements of politics. Nothing checks all the bad practices of politics like public exposure.”
Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States, 1913-1921
* Anthony Longden advises News Associates on journalism. He spent 20 years as editor and senior editorial executive in various regional companies in the UK, including Newsquest and Trinity Mirror.
He is a member of the Society of Editors parliamentary and legal committee, lobbying on behalf of the media industry on a wide range of issues.
He was an editorial member of the Press Complaints Commission, and sat on its reform committee.
Now a consultant and journalist, he advises the SoE and Alder Media, a London-based crisis PR firm. He judges the annual UK national and regional Newspaper Awards.