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27 November 2020

The Times: Government ‘Cynically Frustrating’ FOI

The Times has accused Government of being “hellbent” on making scrutiny of decision-making harder after reporting on a Cabinet Office unit which advises Government departments on how to frustrate Freedom of Information Act requests.   

In a leader this week, The Times said a Government department within the Cabinet Office was believed to is believed to run a “watchlist” of journalists from publications, including The Times, to identify FOI requests which may be deemed sensitive

The Times reported that the unit, revealed in an openDemocracy report this week, vetted responses from Government departments and advised them “how best frustrate them.”

The News Media Association said: "Freedom of information is crucial to oversight of Government and its accountability to the public, not least through journalists’ investigations and accurate reporting.

"The FOIA was passed 20 years ago as an instrument to change the UK’s culture of official secrecy, not for its exemptions and procedures to be exploited  by officialdom to delay and obstruct the supply of information which we all have the right to know."

The Times said: “Transparency is not a privilege or a gift bequeathed to a grateful citizenry by a benign government. It is a fundamental right of a free people to be able to see and scrutinise the decisions made on their behalf. That message has failed to get through to the government of Boris Johnson, which seems hellbent on making it harder. This is not only a disgrace, but a mistake.

It added: “The Freedom of Information Act was brought in by Tony Blair, who later regarded it as one of his greatest mistakes. ‘I quake at the imbecility of it,’ he wrote in his memoirs. His complaint was that a law designed to promote transparency for the public was instead being exploited by journalists.

“The distinction is a false one. Freedom of information requests have become a vital journalistic tool for shedding light on the actions and behaviour of powerful organisations. They are also used by campaigners. Any institution that frustrates them is an institution that has something to hide.

“Allegations of cronyism within Covid-era procurement offer a fine example of the dangers when scrutiny breaks down. It is hard to escape the suspicion that this government’s default inclination of doing business with its friends and supporters emerges from the same mindset as its reluctance to be held openly to account. Without transparency, claustrophobic backscratching and pork-barrel politics thrive.

In April of this year the United Kingdom dropped two places on the World Press Freedom Index, as ranked by the organisation Reporters Without Borders. It now sits at 35th place, behind most European nations and numerous others, including South Africa, Costa Rica and Jamaica.

“As a former journalist himself, Mr Johnson should consider this internationally shaming. If the Prime Minister’s promised reset is to mean anything, it should start with a commitment to far greater transparency, not least as to what the FOI clearing house is up to.”