FOI Man imagines a world where journalists have to answer FOI requests…

In these hallowed pages, you’ve read on many an occasion of the concerns that some in the public sector have about FOI. Some of those concerns I sympathise with, some I don’t. One thing that is predictable, by and large, is that journalists won’t.

Now I love the ladies and gentlemen of the Press. Well, most of them, anyway. But I’ve often wondered if their views of FOI might be affected if they experienced working in an FOIable world. It’s very easy to criticise delays if you’ve never had to juggle the main work that you have to complete with one or more demanding FOI requests. And the use of exemptions to withhold information can readily be painted as a lack of commitment to openness if your emails have never been the subject of a statutory duty to disclose. (Although some media organisations are probably getting more used to that these days, come to think of it).

At the height of hackgate last month, one MP made the wild suggestion that media organisations should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. I’ve been dying to write this ever since. And as it’s Friday…

A bead of perspiration ran down Bill’s forehead. A hot summer day, but he hadn’t the time to join his colleagues in the pub. Bill was writing up the scoop of his life. This was the kind of story that could make a journalist’s career. All he had to do was get it to his editor by 7.

The phone rings. Bill sees who it is and sighs. He picks up.

“Hi Bill?”

“Yes, Sarah, how can I help you? Not another FOI?”

“’fraid so. And I need the answers by tomorrow – it’s been with you for three weeks now.”

“You’re kidding? I’m dead busy Sarah – can’t do it now.”

“It’s got to be now. We’ve already been named and shamed by the Information Commissioner for not meeting deadlines. Unless this goes out on time, we will have trouble. The Editor signed an undertaking last month, and told us all to get our house in order.”

Bill knew she was right. The paper had had some bad press itself lately, and this would add to their troubles.

“OK, Sarah, let me look into it and I’ll come back to you.”

So Bill dropped his work on his scoop. The FOI, funnily enough, was asking for copies of all correspondence relating to the story he was working on. It was speculative, from a journalist on another paper, but it happened that all his key evidence was relevant. He’d put months of work into this story, but some hack who had got lucky with a fishing expedition was now going to get the fruits of his labour for free. His only hope was to get his story out first. But he’d already lost three or four hours pulling together the information for Sarah. He finished forwarding the relevant emails to her, and looked at his watch, yawning. He had to get home, and if he wasn’t careful, he was going to miss the last train. Oh well. Another day tomorrow not even touched.

The next day, Thursday, Bill completed his piece. He forwarded it to the Editor for approval. Nothing. He checked with the Editor’s PA. She was busy all afternoon with the Head of Law and Sarah, considering a request for internal review in a case where there were five boxes of papers. They’d have to read every sheet to work out if anything could be disclosed. When he did eventually hear from the Editor, it was to say that she’d need to consider the story carefully as there were legal issues. Bill sighed, pulled on his coat and headed off to meet his source and buy them dinner.

He watched with some consternation as the Source chose the most expensive item on the menu, before selecting a fine wine. That was a hundred quid he could wave goodbye to. In the old days, he might have claimed for dinner on expenses, but since an MP had made an FOI request for all journalists’ expense claims and receipts two years ago, he was afraid to claim for anything. He had just managed to escape with his job from the resulting furore, though his claim for a pigeon coop had caused much mirth in Parliament.

Friday morning. Heading to the station, Bill stopped off at the newsagent for a packet of paracetamol and the morning’s papers. He stopped aghast as he laid the papers on the counter. There, on the front page of the Daily Jupiter, is his story. It is illustrated with a huge image of one of the emails that he’d sent to Sarah two days before. He nearly forgot to pay in his rush to get to the office. It was time to go freelance.

Meanwhile, the Editor was sweating over an email she’d sent to a private investigator the year before, which had come up in a search for relevant information to answer an FOI request. She couldn’t believe that she’d put her instruction in writing…

It’s worth pointing out that if the media were subject to FOI, it is likely that they would benefit from the same derogation that the BBC and Channel 4 have for information related to their journalism (and which often attracts criticism from other media organisations). But hopefully this story illustrates the point that often dealing with FOI requests involves people central to delivering public services – senior nurses, doctors, lecturers, social workers, etc. And even with a derogation, FOI has implications for how an organisation is resourced.

I’m sure this sketch bears little relation to a real newsroom. I’ve never worked for a newspaper, so I’m basing this on too much TV and a fertile imagination. But perhaps it might illustrate to some why public sector bodies sometimes struggle with FOI.

Don’t worry, media friends, I’m not seriously proposing that you should be subject to FOI. But I bet there are a few out there who would like it…