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So the question we have been answering via this blog and our presentation has been: How much has freedom of information legislation improved journalists’ access to official public sources?

What we think

I think I speak for Speak Out (as it were) when I say we all felt Freedom of Information legislation in the UK has its limitations.  The fuss MPs have made over disclosing their expenses shows how politicians are often less than willing to comply with the spirit of the FoI legislation if it is not in their interest. The apparent downward trend in the success of FOI requests in the US especially under George W Bush (as signposted by Ciara here) are another depressing reminder of this. Even public service organisations like the BBC are not averse to making it hard for journalists to gain access to information to which they are entitled. I highlighted this earlier on the blog and Ciara’s research on the Balen report also supports this thesis.

However, Hannah found a very interesting case where it could be argued FoI requests alerted members of the public to the possible danger of absconded prisoners.

What others think

When we spoke to other journalists, they seemed to share our frustrations. Local journalist Tim Hubbard (BBC Radio Cornwall) felt that FoI legislation was not the ‘panacea’ to cure the culture of secrecy in public authorities. Meanwhile, David Leigh, a nationally known and respected Guardian journalist) has used FoI requests less as time has passed since the legislation was enacted. He pointed out that the list of exceptions can be and are used to obstruct the release of information to journalists.

So how useful?

Well, it is surely better to have FoI than nothing at all, especially in a country where open government is not exactly an accepted norm.

But David Leigh says the Act needs to be toughened up in the same way that the US FoI legislation was after the Watergate scandal, and I agree. If the legislation is to help journalists to get at the truth behind government press releases – and those of other public authorities – the culture needs to change.

Amy Pollock

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It was really useful to hear how local journalists find using FoI information. Tim Hubbard is a longstanding journalist at BBC Radio Cornwall who helped us with voice presentation skills this term. Hannah got the interview with him after one of these sessions. He thinks it promised a lot, but has actually delivered very little for journalists at the local level.

Listen here.

Amy Pollock

Not sure if we have made reference to this site. You can browse requests made by other people, and the responses they have received. FoI requests can be made through the site too.

Useful for background research on topics we may want to investigate from a  journalistic perspective.

I interviewed David Leigh after attending his investigative reporting masterclass at City University in London. He spoke about the frustration he feels about the ineffectiveness of the FOI legislation, while conceding that it allows us an insight into the murky machinations of government.
Listen here.

Amy Pollock

The journalist Paul Fisher has died aged 90. It has often been said that the Freedom of Information Act would not exist in the US had it not been for Fisher. He also campaigned for prisoners rights as well as his pursuit for an open government.
Ciara Sutton

I just heard this story on the Today programme and apparently there are not only serving officers with criminal convictions from before their service began, but there are police officers who have been convicted while serving. This is because the Home Office only recently standardised rules about the recruitment of police officers with criminal convictions. If we can’t trust the police to uphold the law, what hope is there? An excellent use of FoI requests in my opinion – definitely in the public interest.

Amy Pollock

This piece on the Guardian’s Comment is Free rang a few bells for me after reading Ciara’s post. It’s something that I know we all came across in our research – the relationship between the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act. As the author says, citizens can use the Data Protection Act to make a ‘subject access request’ and it seems like anyone who has an interest in peaceful protest should have a long hard think about doing so as the police have a habit of compiling databases containing your name and details, even if you have no criminal record. Of course, if you’re after non-personal information like, for example, how many people who have attended peaceful protests have their details stored on the criminal intelligence database, you can use the Freedom of Information Act.

I still find it strange that we have these two relatively robust pieces of legislation, but we have yet to conquer the culture of secrecy in the government and its agencies. Not only is it annoying for journalists, but as I said several times during the presentation, it’s profoundly undemocratic.

Amy Pollock

I realised that we missed one of our UCF colleagues’ blogs, Social Media Monkey, in our blogroll. I have remedied the situation below.

Amy Pollock

I found this link lurking in our blogroll, so I thought I’d restore it to it’s rightful place in the blog. It’s about the neverending to-ing and fro-ing between the British government and the courts over the government’s refusal to release the minutes of cabinet meetings from the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war.

Amy Pollock

Interesting to see how much the FOI Act will be used effectively in financial journalism during the global recession. Another article focussing on Scotland, and from a legal magazine, but interesting all the same!

Ciara Sutton