'Government too secretive and controlling despite FoI', editor claims

Investigative journalism is under greater threat from a Government that has "become more controlling" since the Freedom of Information Act, according to investigative journalist Tony Collins.

The executive editor of Computer Weekly was a runner-up in last week's Paul Foot awards for what judges called "relentless investigation" into the £12.4bn NHS IT programme in the face of "consistent obstruction and obfuscation from the Government".

Collins told Press Gazette that his title has been campaigning for an independent review of the National Health Service IT programme, but that this seemed to be "the last thing in the world the Government wants".

He said: "My experience of investigative journalism in the IT industry is that the Government has become more controlling. Things since the FoI Act — with a few honourable exceptions — are getting worse.

"We're seeing Government spinning more, Government departments using the FoI Act not to answer my questions. They're referring me to the FoI Act to get them answered, but we're still waiting for a judgement for the request we put in in 2005, 18 months later. It's very useful for a press department to refer the journalist to the FoI Act because the chances are there won't be a decision on it for 18 months."

Computer Weekly made a request for details to be made public of the January 2005 meeting where Tony Blair approved the NHS IT programme. Downing Street refused to give details on the basis that this would compromise the advice given by civil servants to ministers. The case was reviewed internally, turned down again, and despite an appeal by the magazine since, Computer Weekly has yet to receive any response.

Collins also attacked a series of proposed rule changes to the FoI Act announced last week by the Constitutional Affairs Secretary, Lord Falconer. The main effect of the changes would be that far more requests by journalists would be rejected because they would exceed the existing fee limits.

Collins said the problem was that the "secretive" culture of Government had not changed.

"It's a cultural thing — the Department of Health is as secretive as it was, the Department of Constitutional Affairs quite secretive as well. We have to get Government to stop using its power under the Act to go to appeal over Information Commissioner decisions.

"It's given the power to the Information Commissioner to make a judgement over whether a department is right or wrong in releasing or not releasing information. To then have a back-up of an appeal makes a nonsense of giving the Information Commissioner that power."

Collins said he saw the Paul Foot Award nomination as "a tribute to Computer Weekly's tenacity, because the editor [Hooman Bassirian] has made a decision that this is something we are going to campaign on".

He added: "Campaigning in trade magazines is pretty unusual, certainly to the extent we have. We are campaigning for openness and accountability on the world's largest civil, non-military computer project."

Computer Weekly has won the PPA editorial campaign of the year 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005 and PPA business magazine of the year in 2000. Collins won its writer of the year title in 1996 and 2000. He also received the Freedom of Information Award in 1999 from the PPA, presented by then-Home Secretary Jack Straw, for its groundbreaking investigative journalism.

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