ONE of the most irritating things which often infect discussions about how reporters use the Freedom of Information Act is the idea that all journalists do is make endless requests about how much public institutions spend every year on bog roll, bottled water and tiramisu. Actually, to my knowledge, nobody has surveyed every local authority in the country so far to see how much they spend on tiramisu, but no doubt the Tax-Payers Alliance will be onto it soon – and I bet they all spend millions on it.
These daft, sometimes irrelevant, requests for information under the Act are held up as reasons for limiting the scope of our options under the legislation in the future, when they actually need to be expanded. Vast amounts of public money, we are often told at this point, are being spent on answering frivolous enquiries from the press.
What you don’t hear so much of, however, are all the requests for genuine, serious information which appear to be rebuffed for the slightest reason. The rejection letters have not just piled up in our offices, it’s a problem in newsrooms across the United Kingdom.
In the first years of FoI, officials at institutions both local and national often seemed to embrace the spirit and good intentions of the Act. But it didn’t take long for a feeling to grow that many public bodies had started looking for ways to withhold information rather than looking for reasons to release it. I’m not the only journalist who has daydreamed about how internal discussions to find legal defences to keep quite simple information locked away might just be where the manpower bills mount up.
And those institutions which do say ‘no’, do so knowing that the reporter – or even just a member of the public who wants to know something about a publicly-funded department – will have a long haul battle through the appeals process to get any closer to the information.
Against that backdrop, maybe it’s a little more understandable why people (journalists) make requests for things that might seem mundane. They do so because they at least know they will get answers to their questions, like when they ask how much is spent on tea-bags. The recent request (not made by me) to the British Transport Police’s offices in Camden Town, with its super meticulous description of what a tea-bag actually is (see above) highlights this rutting, suspicious relationship between those making the requests and those dealing with them.