THERE’S been more than one sharp intake of breath in the press offices that flak for our public institutions this year. The fright has been caused by a new trend for journalists to request to see their ‘if asked’ statements. If you’re in the game, you’ll understand why that would cause a cold sweat for some of our finest communications teams.
These are the statements that press offices at all levels compile for journalists to use. They are pre-prepared reactive lines, but the key thing is: they are only triggered if we ask the right questions.
Asking for them retrospectively may seem like an admission of failure on the reporter’s part: why weren’t we asking the right questions in the first place? The truth is, even with an engaged, crowded local media at work – a place like, say, Camden – some stories, some things that you and I might find scandalous, pass by unnoticed. There are occasions where one press officer looks at another who then looks at someone senior and says… looks likes we’ve got away with that one. To the balcony for cigars. That’s how I imagine it anyway.
Still, our incompetence, our failure to be on the spot all the time, does not invalidate our right to go back and dig the details out at a later stage and some bright spark looked to shortcut the system by waiting a few months and then asking for the ‘if asked’ statements that public body press offices had compiled under the Freedom of Information. On the face of it, despite the your-right-to-know culture that the FoI Act is supposed to create actually being more like your-right-to-NO, this one seems unwriggly-outable.
These statements, after all, were compiled for public consumption by a public institution paid for by the public and, albeit indirectly, we are now asking for statements that would have already been provided had we asked earlier.
But before journalists dive in and think they’re in Easy Street, a damp towel from Camden Council. It doesn’t agree. I’ve already asked for their ‘if asked’ statements and the answer has been a resolute no. The lawyers pin-poked all over the request and, as befits the trend of keeping everything apart from the cost of loo rolls locked away, the request was rejected. I appealed through the council’s review system without any joy.
And that’s where Camden comes across, with substance or not, as having something awful to hide, something they really don’t want us to see. It would’ve been perfectly possible for them to release those statements, others had. But while other authorities have sucked up the spirit of openness – Norfolk police, for example, released their if asked statements without any protests – the council has closed the door. Their release would, I was assured, “prejudice effective conduct of public affairs”.
In her letter explaining the Town Hall’s stance, Camden’s assistant culture director Fiona Dean added that the council was not bound by what other local authorities do. There is no precedent set.
Which is true.
But it’s interesting to see, as more and more local reporters ask to see the ‘if asked’ cache, which authorities clam up like Camden has and search for a reason not to give the information out, and which ones embrace the idea that people who pay for public services have a basic right to know what’s going on behind Town Hall doors.