The editors of the Guardian, Financial Times, Times, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror have joined together in a rare show of unity urging the Government to look at reform to protect Freedom of Information (FoI) rights.
A dozen current and former Fleet Street editors have joined a call for a review into the Government’s use of FoI, raising “serious concerns” their policies are contributing to a culture of declining press freedom in the UK.
They have been joined by staunch critics of the newspaper industry such as Hacked Off founder Brian Cathcart and founder of rival press regulator Impress Jonathan Heawood.
The letter has been organised by Open Democracy, which last year accused the Cabinet Office of running a secretive and “Orwellian” unit alleged to be “blacklisting” journalists and screening their FoI requests.
The letter urges a full inquiry into the Clearing House investigating whether its operation is GDPR-compliant, whether journalists are being monitored or blacklisted, and whether this illegally undermines the principle that consideration of FoI requests should be applicant-blind.
Guardian editor Katharine Viner, Times and Sunday Times editors John Witherow and Emma Tucker, Daily Telegraph editor Chris Evans, FT boss Roula Khalaf and the Daily Mirror’s Alison Phillips have all given their voices to the appeal.
They are joined by Associated Newspapers editor-in-chief and ex-Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, ex-FT editor Lionel Barber, former Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley, and ex-Independent editor Chris Blackhurst.
Witherow 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 clearinghouse is up to.”
Viner added: “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.”
The letter asks MPs to consider introducing an “administrative silence” rule through which a failure to respond within the lawful time period of 20 working days is deemed to be a refusal and can therefore be fully appealed to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Other suggestions include an independent and fully funded regulator of information rights, citing a “critical lack of funding” for the ICO, and for the Government to implement the ICO’s recommendations to expand the FoI Act to cover private contractors working for public bodies.
The call for action comes after Open Democracy’s reporting revealed their own journalists were among others from the BBC, Guardian and Times whose names, along with details of their work, had been added to a watchlist put together by the Clearing House.
However, the Cabinet Office has insisted its responses are applicant-blind and compliant with data protection law.
Open Democracy has also revealed wider concerns about transparency after the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government told local authorities it was ‘appropriate’ block FoI requests about Grenfell-style cladding on high-rise buildings.
The investigative news website is working with law firm Leigh Day on a legal bid to force the Cabinet Office to reveal how the Clearing House operates while almost 40,000 people have signed a petition asking Michael Gove for transparency.
Some 89 journalists, press freedom campaigners and lawyers have signed the letter to William Wragg, chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and Julian Knight, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
The editors have been joined by the likes of ITV political editor Robert Peston, ex-Channel 4 political correspondent Michael Crick, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Rachel Oldroyd and Meirion Jones, Sky News tech correspondent Rowland Manthorpe, Buzzfeed News investigative reporter Tom Warren, and Tortoise partner and ex-Newsnight policy editor Chris Cook.
The full list of 89 signatories to the letter:
- Mary Fitzgerald, Editor in Chief, openDemocracy
- Katharine Viner, Editor in Chief, The Guardian
- John Witherow, Editor, The Times
- Emma Tucker, Editor, The Sunday Times
- Chris Evans, Editor, The Daily Telegraph
- Roula Khalaf, Editor, The Financial Times
- Alison Phillips, Editor, Daily Mirror
- Paul Dacre, Editor-in-Chief, Associated Newspapers, former Editor, Daily Mail
- Alan Rusbridger, former Editor in Chief, The Guardian
- Lionel Barber, former Editor, Financial Times
- Veronica Wadley, Chair of Arts Council London; former Editor, Evening Standard
- David Davis MP
- Alex Graham, Chair of the Scott Trust
- Ian Murray, Executive Director, Society of Editors
- Sir Alan Moses, former Chair, IPSO
- Anne Lapping CBE, former Deputy Chair, IPSO
- Philip Pullman, author
- Baroness Janet Whitaker
- Baroness Tessa Blackstone
- Ruth Smeeth, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship
- Daniel Bruce, Chief Executive, Transparency International
- Daniel Gorman, Director, English PEN
- Menna Elfyn, President of Wales PEN Cymru
- Carl MacDougall, President of Scottish PEN
- Rebecca Vincent, Director of International Campaigns, Reporters Without Borders
- Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary, National Union of Journalists
- Sian Jones, President, National Union of Journalists
- Jodie Ginsberg, Chief Executive Officer, Internews Europe
- John Sauven, Executive Director, Greenpeace
- Rachel Oldroyd, Managing Editor, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
- Jonathan Heawood, Public Interest News Foundation
- Anthony Barnett, Founding Director, Charter 88
- Chris Blackhurst, former Editor, The Independent
- Suzanna Taverne, Chair, openDemocracy
- Philippe Sands QC
- George Peretz QC
- David Leigh, investigative journalist
- Robert Peston, journalist and author
- Peter Oborne, journalist and author
- Nick Cohen, journalist and author
- David Aaronovitch, journalist and author
- Michael Crick, journalist and author
- Ian Cobain, investigative journalist
- Tom Bower, investigative journalist
- Aditya Chakrabortty, Senior Economics Commentator, The Guardian
- Jason Beattie, Assistant Editor, the Daily Mirror
- Rowland Manthorpe, Technology Correspondent, Sky News
- Cynthia O’Murchu, Investigative Reporter, Financial Times
- Tom Warren, Investigative Reporter, BuzzFeed News
- Christopher Hird, Founder and Managing Director, Dartmouth Films
- Meirion Jones, Investigations Editor, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
- James Ball, Global Editor, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
- Oliver Bullough, journalist and author
- Henry Porter, journalist and author
- Peter Geoghegan, Investigations Editor, openDemocracy
- Margot Gibbs, Senior Reporter, Finance Uncovered
- Lionel Faull, Chief Reporter, Finance Uncovered
- Chris Cook, Contributing editor, Tortoise
- Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism, Kingston University
- Mark Cridge, Chief Executive, mySociety
- Dr Susan Hawley, Executive Director, Spotlight on Corruption
- Helen Darbishire, Executive Director, Access Info Europe
- Miriam Turner and Hugh Knowles, co-CEOs, Friends of the Earth
- Mike Davis, Executive Director, Global Witness
- Silkie Carlo, Director, Big Brother Watch
- Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London
- Dr Lutz Kinkel, the Managing Director of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
- Scott Griffen, Deputy Director of International Press Institute
- Granville Williams, Editor, Media North
- Alison Moore, journalist and editor
- Tim Gopsill, Former Editor, Free Press and the Journalist magazine
- Dave West, Deputy Editor, Health Services Journal
- Dr Sam Raphael, Director, UK Unredacted and University of Westminster
- Leigh Baldwin and Marcus Leroux, SourceMaterial
- Vicky Cann, Corporate Europe Observatory
- Barnaby Pace, Senior Campaigner, Global Witness
- Lisa Clark, Scottish PEN Project Manager
- Nick Craven, journalist
- Caroline Molloy, Editor, openDemocracy UK
- Jenna Corderoy, Investigative Reporter, openDemocracy
- Jamie Beagent, Partner, Leigh Day
- Sean Humber, Partner, Leigh Day
- Harminder Bains, Partner, Leigh Day
- Thomas Jervis, Partner, Leigh Day
- Oliver Holland, Partner, Leigh Day
- Merry Varney, Partner, Leigh Day
- Daniel Easton, Partner, Leigh Day
- Michael Newman, Partner, Leigh Day
- Sarah Campbell, Partner, Leigh Day
Pictures: David Levene/The Guardian, Press Gazette, FT, Press Gazette