FOI: We can’t see the ‘ill considered’ things said under pressure

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HERE’S a thing: Camden Council has blocked certain bits of information about its parking and communications departments being released under the Freedom of Information Act on the grounds that things suggested by officers under pressure, that might later sound ‘ill-advised’, should not be open to public view. What a wonderful catch-all rejection, a golden example of how the institutions we pay for can keep a lock on the really interesting material they hold.

First, let’s put things into context.

The visitor stats on these pages had an almighty spike over the weekend as newspaper websites lifted the London clown crime post from last week. This was the one which detailed every time the Met Police had come across a rogue clown over the last three years. Bad circus puns swept across the wires, reaching the United States and Germany, Buzzfeed did their thing with it, and elsewhere it was cheered as  journalism that amounted to that overused term ‘genius’. I had explained from the off that the idea was borrowed and the levels of investigation had not stretched beyond sending an emailed Freedom of Information request.

Others frowned. This was wasting precious police resources. Just think of all the heists and murders that could’ve been sold in the time in takes to wordsearch a database. Those with deeper opinions said that by asking frivilous FoI questions – and this request has been rejected on those grounds by other police forces – it waters down the effectiveness of the system. That it-ruins-it-for-all-of-us theory goes, that by clogging up the system with inane questions, it makes it more likely that future legislation will limit the stretch of FoI at the expense of more serious, investigative work.

That’s not bad reasoning, but the truth is, we’re kind of already at that stage. Think of the last time you saw a really decent, investigative – and unique – newspaper piece that hinged on publicly-accountable bodies releasing killer information following a Freedom of Information request. The examples of this are few and far between. Instead, the FoI stories in newspapers are on a repetitive cycle: police officers moonlighting in unusual jobs, officers convicted of crimes, school exclusions, pest control visits at hospitals, streets with the most parking fines, websites visited by civil servants at work… You’ve read them. It’s the same diet every year.

With that samey repetition, you get the occasional bit of free-styling, like the first person to ask a local council what plans they had in place for a zombie invasion, but that in itself had all the hallmarks of a requester lopping in a leftfield one after tiring of being turned down for the meaty stuff.

The reality of FoI is that we are potentially doomed to having the same stories every year, with the restrictions too tight to get hold of anything else. Doubters may say that is actually a fault with the imagination or investigation prowess among journalists. Maybe. But if somebody high up in a public body sees a document, maybe an email which is clearly the source of some embarrassment, what would be the natural human reaction in most of us? To wave your hands in the air and then say, oh well, let them have it all,  thems the breaks. Or to say: Get legal down here now and find a way, there must be a way, to make sure that this does not leave the building. As each year goes by there seems to be more reasons to withhold information, rather than release it. An affront, you might say, to the spirit of the original legislation.

Now, for my latest FoI request to Camden Council, I don’t suggest anybody at Judd Street ordered anything to be done that was beyond their rights. But when you read their case for withholding the information, it is something of a classic. It appears to amount to telling us that the public can’t see the full debate, when people are boffing bad ideas when the pressure is on. I had asked for copies of the communication between Camden and the BBC over the Inside Out documentary last year, which made accusations about the way parking penalties are handed out in our borough. There had been an attempt to get the BBC to suspend transmission while the two sides disagreed over the content. It was an interesting dispute.

Anyway, here is part of the response which explains why I was barred from seeing all of the to and fro under FoI.

goldenThe ‘ill-considered’ things that may or may not happen under pressure at the Town Hall therefore stay under lock and key. In theory, that could apply to a lot of requests for information that go into the Town Hall. But to some extent, it’s rejections like this that may explain why journalists are more likely to turn to clown-chase stories.

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