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22 July 2015

NMA: Government Must Not ‘Cut Away’ Public Right to Know

The news media industry and politicians have voiced grave concerns about the impact on the public right to know following the Government’s announcement of a new commission to look at the Freedom of Information Act.

The News Media Association has said that the FOI Act’s tenth anniversary must not be marked by a “retreat into official secrecy.”

NMA legal policy and regulatory affairs director Santha Rasaiah said: "The Government must not cut away the public right to know. The Freedom of Information Act requires extension, not restriction.

"It already allows a space for frank policy advice, prevents vexatious use and avoids onerous costs burdens. We must not allow the Act’s tenth anniversary to be marked by an attack upon the Act and a retreat into official secrecy.”

Campaign for Freedom of Information director Maurice Frankel said: “The Government is clearly proposing to crack down on FOI. Ministers want certainty that policy discussions will not only take place in secret but be kept secret afterwards.  They don’t like the fact that the Act requires the case for confidentiality to be weighed against the public interest in disclosure.

“The Commissioner and Tribunal give substantial weight to the need to protect ongoing government discussions and the frankness of future exchanges.  But after a decision has been announced they sometimes order disclosure where exchanges are anodyne, the material is old or the case for openness is overwhelming.  If that balancing test is removed mistakes, bad decisions and policy failures caused by deliberately ignoring the evidence will be concealed for 20 years.”

David Higgerson, Trinity Mirror, digital publishing director, said: "Politicians time and again carp on about wanting to be open and honest. Very few turn those words into actions. The only difference between this attack by the Tories and others before is that it is so blatant. Make no mistake, this isn’t a tweak or a change, it’s an all out assault on the public’s right to know – and journalists everywhere need to fight back."

Information Commissioner Christopher Graham told the Independent: “The Act is not without its critics, but in providing a largely free and universal right of access to information, subject to legitimate exceptions, we believe the freedom of information regime is fit for purpose,” he said.”

In a letter to The Times, Lord Wills wrote: “Parliament should stop any attempt to weaken the public’s right to transparency in government. The current legislation already contains stringent protections for sensitive information, and there is no good evidence for any damage being done to the national interest from the way the act has operated.

“On the contrary, there is a strong argument that the national interest has been well served by the way the act has helped to expose incompetence and chicanery in public office. Emasculating it will only intensify the deep public disillusion with politicians.”