Anthony Longden Column: Ten years on from Freedom of Information Act
January 1, 2015 marks an important milestone: ten years since the Freedom of Information Act came into force.
It was born out of Tony Blair’s idealistic pledge to sweep away the ingrained culture of official secrecy. A worthy cause – but one he would personally live to regret when ‘his’ Act was used to expose all manner of embarrassment, incompetence and scandal.
Those are all things that go hand in hand with politics, and the public has every right to know about them.
On the whole the FOI Act has been a great success, and there can be little doubt we are living in a more open society as a result. In those dark days before 2005, it was just too easy for a wide range of public bodies, local authorities and other organisations to simply say ‘no’ when asked for information relating to their decisions.
Now, FOI is used by both journalists and what Information Commissioner Christopher Graham describes as “an army of armchair investigators” to access all manner of facts and figures that lie behind important decisions that affect everyone.
Blair the idealist set the ball rolling. Blair the politician then panicked when the awful reality of what he had started clunked home. He then frantically tried to water it down and delay it.
The depth of this despair is obvious in his book, A Journey (2010).
“Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.
“Once I appreciated the full enormity of the blunder, I used to say – more than a little unfairly – to any civil servant who would listen: Where was Sir Humphrey when I needed him?
“We had legislated in the first throes of power. How could you, knowing what you know have allowed us to do such a thing so utterly undermining of sensible government?”
Tut tut. A politician initiating something that led to dramatically increased accountability?
The tenth anniversary of the Act coming into force was marked at the end of November by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) at an event at the Royal Society of Arts.
Journalists and practitioners were brought together to discuss the Act and it was fascinating to hear of how its use has developed.
Deputy Information Commissioner, Graham Smith, gave numerous examples of just how far the culture has moved in the last decade, pointing out that more information is being disclosed now than would have been dreamed possible back in 2005.
He added that one of the biggest changes is that it is no longer acceptable to attempt to hide expenditure of public money.
There are still problem areas – striking the balance between private and public life is still difficult, for example.
Mr Smith listed several key arguments about disclosure that are still being thrashed out:
– Should the names of authors of reports, letters and emails be disclosable?
– Should the names of those subject to disciplinary proceedings be disclosable?
– Should personal information contained in OFSTED reports, such as criticism of a head teacher, be disclosable?
– Should the names of information requesters and complainants be disclosed?
In addition to points like these, those who hold the data are facing significant challenges of their own.
Largely thanks to the erosion of trust in the police, forces up and down the country are now having to deal with a surge of FOI requests, often having to foot the bill for information tribunals which each cost around £10,000.
Many FOI officers in other organisations complain about finding it harder to meet the requirements of the Act as resources dwindle. As one put it at the anniversary debate: “We are finding it increasingly difficult to work against the barrier of austerity”.
The answer is that in many cases, use of the FOI Act actually saves significant sums of public money as inefficiencies and incompetence are revealed.
And as Scottish Information Commissioner Rosemary Agnew succinctly put it: “If you view FOI as a burden, you have probably missed the point.”
As journalists, we should not, however, misuse this powerful tool.
An FOI request uses the force of law to compel organisations to disclose information. Just try asking for it first. In this enlightened post-FOI world, you might well be pleasantly surprised.
“Never believe governments, not any of them, not a word they say; keep an untrusting eye on all they do.”
Martha Gelhorn (1908-1998)
* 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 completed a three-year term as an editorial member of the Press Complaints Commission in 2012, 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.