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09 February 2021

Editors Unite To Call For ‘Urgent’ Action On Freedom Of Information  

More than a dozen current and former Fleet Street editors and other bodies including the News Media Association have today called on MPs to “urgently” investigate the Government's handling of Freedom of Information requests, amid wider concerns about deteriorating press freedom in the UK.

This letter, to Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chair William Wragg MP and Julian Knight MP, chair of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, comes in response to an openDemocracy investigation into what it calls an "Orwellian" Cabinet Office unit that has been profiling journalists and blocking the release of "sensitive" FOI requests.

The letter calls for an investigation to be opened into the "Clearing House" unit within the Cabinet Office. It also demands the introduction of new measures to speed up FOI requests, and for greater support for the Information Commissioner’s Office which oversees FOI. 

John Witherow, The Times editor, 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.

"Freedom of information requests are a vital journalistic tool for shedding light on the actions and behaviour of powerful organisations. Any institution that frustrates them is an institution that has something to hide – the Cabinet Office's 'clearing house' does just that, vetting requests that may be deemed sensitive and advising departments as to how best frustrate them.  

"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."

Guardian News and Media editor-in-chief Katharine Viner said: "At a time when journalistic freedom is under threat around the world, the Government's time-wasting over legitimate FOI requests is at odds with its global commitments to press freedom.

“Given the huge amounts of public money now spent with private contractors, a clear commitment to greater transparency and a well-funded information commissioner are manifestly in the public interest."

openDemocracy is working with the law firm Leigh Day on a legal bid to force the Cabinet Office to reveal full details of how the "Clearing House" operates, and nearly 40,000 people have also signed a petition to Michael Gove calling for urgent action. 

Mary Fitzgerald, openDemocracy editor-in-chief, said: “Our journalism has uncovered evidence of what many in the industry have long suspected, which is that there is a toxic culture of secrecy and evasion at the heart of government that risks fatally undermining press freedom in this country.

“Today we are calling on MPs to investigate our findings and to take urgent steps to ensure that our fundamental rights to access information and to hold our leaders accountable are protected and upheld."