Are journalists paranoid about FOI?

In a couple of recent posts, I’ve written about how FOI Officers treat requesters’ details, and specifically about the handling of ‘round-robin’ requests. Although my intent was to indicate that, in the main, requesters’ details are handled sensitively and professionally, that wasn’t the message picked up by many of you.

David Higgerson, a journalist who blogs about, well, journalism, wrote about ways to avoid being identified as a ‘round-robin’ requester. The rather wonderfully named Fleet Street Blues blog featured a post on how to ensure that your FOI request isn’t singled out for special treatment. And a post on the Help Me Investigate blog explained “why who is requesting (shouldn’t but) can matter”.

It seemed to me that I’d hit a raw nerve. I asked around on Twitter, and the response was interesting. One journalist with a broadsheet reported that whenever he made an FOI request, his website instantly registers multiple hits from Government domains. Some suspected that the unease was due to bad experiences with Press Officers who get involved. One commented that his main concern was that if there were different procedures for journalists then the information would be disclosed later, just because of the number of desks that the request/response has to pass over.

Rather more worryingly, an FOI Officer suggested that some authorities are inclined to delay responses to journalists, calculating that when the information does eventually go out, the story will be old news. I want to say that that’s a terribly cynical view, but I can’t in all honesty. Of course that sort of thing happens on occasion, mostly in very political environments. I can’t speak for others, but when I’ve found myself in this situation, I’ve spoken out, and I do think that that’s an important part of the FOI Officer’s role. I’m not sure my bosses have always agreed.

On the journalists’ plus column, one civil servant pointed out to me that they have a hot line to the organisation, through the Press Office, that most people don’t. They only have to use FOI at all for the information that the Press Office are unwilling or unable to provide. Most people don’t have that, so have to use FOI as their only route to information.

And it’s not necessarily because they’re journalists that information goes out late. Just this week I sent out two FOI responses on the twentieth working day to a journalist and I pictured him sat there cursing me for deliberately scuppering his story. It was nothing of the sort of course – we’d had problems pulling the information together, coupled with technical issues, and just scraped the deadline. I alerted the Press Office to the responses that were going out, but it didn’t slow things down (in fact, by the time they responded to my email, the responses had already gone out).

So are journalists being paranoid? Like most of us, probably some of the time they are. Often they get a better service if anything, because we’re more concerned about how they’ll report the story.

But perhaps they’ve got a point. Academic Professor Alasdair Roberts wrote about the experience of Canadian journalists using FOI ten years ago. Government departments in Canada had a systematic approach for dealing with requests from journalists and other types of requester. If a request was from a journalist and/or related to certain sensitive subjects, it would be referred to the Minister. To cut a long story short, Professor Roberts’ research found that the result was that journalists tended to get responses later, and also that their requests were (significantly) more likely to be refused.

I don’t know if anyone has conducted similar research here in the UK (UCL Constitution Unit? University of Northumbria?), but it would be fascinating to hear from them if they have. Maybe those of us who are responsible for overseeing FOI in our respective institutions need to keep an eye out and ensure that we’re doing all we can to provide a fair service to our requesters from the media.

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  1. Ed Walker says:

    I had an experience recently when an FOI request came back from a local authority – and 5 minutes later the press office sent a full release to me justifying each point in the FOI. Clearly there had been a conversation and a healthy line of communication between the FOI officers and press office.

  2. Interesting to note that the Scottish Information Commissioner’s latest Annual Report states that a complaint to his office from the media is more likely to be upheld:

    “Over the period 2005 to 2010, 26% of media applications resulted in a decision in favour of the public authority, compared with 39% of all applications.”

    Of course, part of the explanation might be that journalists appeal proportionately fewer cases, so when they do it tends to be a strong case. The Commissioner does note that only a small proportion of complaints to his office are from the media, despite some authorities reporting receiving a high proportion of media requests. But perhaps, like you said, they have a point!

    The Commissioner’s Report also states media cases are less likely to ‘settle’ (25% of 2005-2010 media complaints were settled, compared to 35% of all applications).