A backlog of Freedom of Information appeals is putting journalists off from using it as an investigative tool, according to a new report.
The first comprehensive report of the workings of the Freedom of Information Act, four years after it was implemented, said the Act had generally been a success.
Jeremy Hayes, the senior output editor of BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight, conducted the survey, which investigates the usage and effectiveness of FoI since it came into force in 2005.
The report, “A Shock to the System: Journalism, Government & the Freedom of Information Act 2000” was published last week by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.
Hayes said: “Although government ministers insist that the Act was not created for the benefit of journalism, there is no doubt that for a number of journalists the Act has altered the way they work.
“By its fourth full year, FoI had significantly advanced as a tool for journalists as more stories came to light and reached the front page.”
But Hayes said there was problem in the slow process and backlog of complaints and the game of “cat and mouse” being played out at Whitehall.
“News is a perishable commodity and delays in obtaining information can undermine a journalist’s efforts to ‘get the story’,” he wrote.
“Journalists’ commitment to using the Freedom of Information Act will be diminished if the chances of obtaining the timely release of information are reduced.”
The report cites evidence from the Ministry of Justice, which found that government departments were the main source of delays, making up more than 75 per cent of the appeals currently awaiting adjudication from the Information Commissioner’s office.
Significant delays arising from a backlog at the ICO have meant that more than 30 per cent of appeals remain unresolved after 12 months.
Hayes suggested in his report that while these delays persist, the incentive for officials to refuse appeals as a means to induce delay will remain.
“This phenomenon is likely to remain a significant disincentive to journalists in the national media to use FoI as an investigative tool,” he said.
“One could formulate a principle concerning the utility of the Act as follows: that its usefulness to journalists is in inverse proportion to its proximity to centres of power in Whitehall.”
In his conclusion, Hayes said: “On the criterion of its use across the board, taking in the full spectrum of inquiries it has permitted, the results are highly positive. For many journalists the volume of new information has proved considerable and productive.
“By another measure as a means to open government, journalistic access on sensitive matters close to the heart of government must be considered a significant indicator, arguably a critical test for the project of Freedom of Information.
“On this criterion much needs to change in Whitehall before the ‘right to Know’ is an established principle and in the process a reliable instrument for the journalist.”