Monday 4 January 2010

"Freedom of Information" and slow news days........

A new trend in British newspapers is apparent - nowhere more so than in our dear Argus. In that post-holiday period where nothing much seems to be happening, the cry goes up......

"Bang in a couple of Freedom of Information Act requests to the council and let's see if anything resembling a story results".

We had two examples last week in the Argus - one concerning numbers of council officers with powers to enter premises, and one on council staff use of officially provided mobile phones.

Now what real "news" there was here is open to serious question. On the first appears councils have staff who can legally go into people's homes and business premises. In case it has passed you by, councils do employ bailiffs, benefit fraud investigators, environmental health officers and suchlike who do have powers of entry. Which is to say that, generally, they cannot actually break your door down, but not letting them in would lay you open to criminal proceedings for obstructing them.

The second story threw up the amazing fact that council employees who have a mobile can use them for personal calls if they reimburse the cost - pretty standard for any employer who issues mobile phones.

Now I have no problem at all with the FoI Act, even if New Labour did water it down to such an extent that the people and corporations who really do have something to hide are generally not touched by it. Perhaps that's why we see it used in such a trivial way by most of the media.

It's other use is to act as a kind of surrogate for any serious investigative journalism. If you want to add a little Woodward and Bernstein cachet to your article just throw in a line that goes something like "we used the Freedom of Information Act to prise this information out of the council". We don't get to hear whether that information could have been obtained by just ringing up and asking for it, or whether the information was actually already in the public domain.

Still, I suppose the people who never wanted genuine freedom of information in the first place must be laughing.

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