Press Gazette’s successful Hands Off FoI campaign has been praised by a regional editor after his paper used Freedom of Information requests to expose the true cost of a council’s attempt to place a gagging order on the tragic case of a baby’s death.
North West Evening Mail editor James Higgins and reporter Caroline Barber submitted two FoIs to Cumbria County Council before they could reveal it had had spent £12,000 on a legal bid to place a 15-year ban on reports from the inquest of Poppi Harrington, from Barrow-in Furness, Cumbria, who died aged 13 months.
The submissions followed the daily title’s involvement in a legal challenge against the superinjunction alongside The Guardian, BBC, PA and other news organisations.
The attempted reporting restriction, described as a “scattergun” approach by a judge, had been sought by the county council after it came under fire for its care of Poppi’s siblings after her death, said Higgins.
“What we wanted to find out was how much the county council had actually spent trying to cover all this up. We put in an FOI that came back with [legal costs of] £780. It was clear that this couldn’t have been the cost,” he said.
“They just tried to be very clever with the way they interpreted the wording or our FOI. We argued the toss with them and they admitted off the record that they had spent quite a lot more but wouldn’t say how much.”
It was only after the paper submitted the second FOI that the full cost was revealed.
“There were no surprises that the amount was a lot more,” said Higgins. “We are well versed in dealing with courts and their associated costs. The disappointing thing was that they hadn’t been open and transparent about it in the first place.
“It was clear from the first FOI what the question was and they just decided to play games. Sadly it wasn’t a case to play games with. It was a tragic case.”
He added: “It was disingenuous of the county council. It was disappointing and not what we would expect of a public body that exists to serve the people of this community.”
Higgins praised Press Gazette’s Hands off FoI campaign for helping stop the government from making legal changes to the act, including submitting a petition with more than 43,000 signatures.
Higgins said his paper’s battle to reveal the true cost behind the attempted gagging order had “highlighted once again the importance of the FOI act in terms of it making sure that information that should be in the public domain is in the public domain”.
“We came very close to losing that recently but for the campaigns of various organisations, Press Gazette being right up there,” he added. “As journalists, as a local newspaper, we have got to be dogged in our determination to get to the bottom of matters that sometimes public authorities would rather we didn’t, but that’s why we exist. That’s what we are here for.
“Caroline never gave up and is a shining example of that.”
A spokesman for Cumbria County Council said its “only intention throughout this process has been to protect the identity of Poppi’s siblings”.
He added: “We immediately acknowledged to the court that our original application for a Reporting Restriction Order (RRO) in July 2014 was too wide ranging and we accepted the judge’s decision to narrow its scope.
“The original Freedom of Information request from the North West Evening Mail asked for costs related to this application. This cost was around £700.
“The subsequent Freedom of Information request asked for the total of all and any legal and administrative costs incurred by Cumbria County Council in relation to the RRO from July 2014 to date – this cost was £12,200.”
The North West Evening Mail has launched a #JusticeForPoppi campaign calling for an independent inquiry into her death.