The Freedom of Information Act 2000 may contain 23 exemptions – but it has proved to be a ‘shoulder-mounted rocket launcher of mischief making’for journalists, according to news agency boss Matt Davis.
Before it came into force in January 2005, Davis, from Connors Press Associates, had been cynical about the likely benefits of the Act, he said. But he now believes that the FoI Act has been responsible for the ‘biggest change in the dynamic between reporters and those who act as gatekeepers of information”.
He told the conference: ‘I have often wondered that if I had met my fairy Godmother, and she granted me a wish, I could have dreamed up a better piece of legislation for an inquisitive, stubborn and sometimes investigative reporter.”
‘Our whole approach to news gathering has changed,’said Davis. ‘We have evolved away from being a hunter race waiting for a big-story beast to wander across our news savannah. Now civilised, we sow our FoI seeds in the ground and wait for them to sprout. Some wither in the soil – but the end result is a more stable and professionally more satisfying existence.”
Urging journalists to grasp the ‘vast scope of the Act’he said that many don’t appreciate the ‘vast mass of little-known quangos’covered by it. He cited examples such as the Newcastle-based Prescription Pricing Authority, which holds data on the number and cost of every NHS prescription written in the country; the NHS Litigation Authority, which paid out £540m last year, and the DVLA – which has a special committee, Davis said, to rule on which number plate combinations are too rude to release.
Advising journalists on how to make best use of the Act, he said: ‘Think of the story before you think of the question. Don’t just strafe authorities with random questions hoping that one of them might hit the target. Think of the story you would like to publish, and then track back to who would hold the data that would allow you to write the story, and how best you can get hold of that data.”
All news organisations should do more to keep ahead of the game, but at the moment few news organisations even have a journalist with a responsibility for Freedom of Information, let alone a specialist in the field, said Davis.
‘We complained bitterly and successfully –in part thanks to Press Gazette – to save the Freedom of Information Act from being neutered,’he added. ‘Now it is here to stay we should really put our weight behind it and use it to its full potential.”