Freedom of information: the truth is out there

South Wales Evening Post - 20 May 2014

A former client once phoned me to ask if I would help him put together a Freedom of Information request.

His firm had seen a string of tenders rejected by a public body and he wanted details of how contracts were awarded. I asked him to give me ten minutes. I then went online and instead found the organisation’s procurement policy - all 92 pages of it.

It turned out that this was the first time he’d seen the document, which probably explained his firm’s failure rate.

Growth in internet use over the last decade or so has put a humungous amount of information out there. In fact, there is probably quite a lot more available than governments would like, thanks to people like Edward Snowden

Besides his initial slipup, my client’s other miscalculation was in thinking that Freedom of Information measures are there to allow us to uncover hidden truths. What they actually represent is a form of institutionalised secrecy which also serves as a limitless news source.

According to Ministry of Justice data, the vast majority of Freedom of Information requests made in the UK come from the media, political parties and researchers. By comparison, the percentage of requests submitted by individuals is in single figures.

Every day we see articles that quote statistics “obtained via a Freedom of Information request”. In each case, facts are exposed which otherwise would not have found their way into the public domain. At least, that’s the presumption.

My experience on the other hand is that quite a few of the stories which use figures gained through this method often quote information that is already available on somebody’s website, if you take the trouble to look.

FOI - a statutory freedom to hide the facts?

Local Government, the police and the NHS have needed to evolve a whole new layer of costly administration just to answer queries where the answer is for media consumption, either directly or indirectly through political channels.

I’m not surprised that this trend has prompted a rethink in the UK as to how restrictions should be imposed to counter what is increasingly described as “process abuse”.

We are not alone. Australia is considering ditching its freedom of information framework altogether on the grounds of soaring costs.

There have been suggestions from one think tank that the media & political parties should pay a standard administrative charge for treating public bodies as a convenient library service.

Of course, there has always been a love-hate relationship with the Act in Westminster.

The information is out there

Tony Blair, who was responsible for passing the legislation, later described it as one of the biggest mistakes of his career. His compared it to taking away the stick that someone was using to beat you and handing them a mallet.

Information campaigners on the other hand point out that this has not prevented Whitehall from refusing to release cabinet minutes relating to the invasion of Iraq or stopping the publication of private letters sent by Prince Charles to several government departments.

The Leveson proceedings and conflicting views about the extent of press freedoms should probably make us nervous when politicians also start talking about diluting access to official information.

As much as public bodies talk about openness & transparency in their dealings, you only have to look at the amount of items discussed behind closed doors to appreciate how little of what is preached actually gets practiced.

But who am I to criticise? I shared a train journey to London a while ago with Mal Pope. He was telling me about his film, “From a Jack to a King” and how some early key scenes would probably have to remain un-filmed. I was relieved to hear it.

Like several others, I’m proud to have been influential behind the scenes in helping keep the Swans solvent following the Tony Petty era. How that was done however should be considered exempt information for now. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

We are fortunate to live in a part of the world where information is largely free and accessible. Like any other freedom, we should treat any attempt to change this situation with a good deal of caution.