William Randolph Hearst is credited with the truism: ‘News is what somebody, somewhere doesn’t want you to publish.’
So I suspect that he would have approved of the Freedom of Information Act which, as I’ve said before in this column, is a powerful tool for journalists seeking to force facts out of recalcitrant public officials.
Of course, not all are secretive, but those who are seem to take a perverse delight in digging in their heels as they seek to stop people benefiting from a free flow of information.
They are the ones who have sought to find ways to dent the spirit of the Act rather than just accept that truth should out.
Among the tactics have been overzealous interpretations of the exemptions in the Act, a dragging of heels in responding to requests and suggestions that regular enquirers would have to pay for the privilege of being able to ensure the wheels of democracy keep turning. So it was good to see a committee of MPs in robust mood recently as they examined the effectiveness of the Act since it came into force 12 years ago.
Members of the Justice Select Committee were insistent that payments should not have to be made to receive information from public authorities
The MPs recommended higher fines for destruction of data and said that public bodies should be required to publish details on how quickly – or otherwise – they responded to FoI requests.
The last point is an interesting one. The Act says requests must be answered promptly within a period of up to 20 working days.
It’s amazing how many organisations interpret that as freedom to take 20 days to answer any enquiry.
For most requests, that turn-round time is not prompt at all.
So it’s important that we keep making life difficult for those who would thwart the spirit of FoI. The National Union of Journalists gave evidence to the Justice Select Committee and I agree with its general secretary, Michelle Stanistreet, when she says: ‘As part of the democratic process, citizens need to be able to have access to data that can inform them on the decision making and spending of public bodies.
‘In our evidence to the inquiry, we gave examples of how journalists have used the act to uncover vital information.’