The right of journalists to inspect local authority accounts for potential stories has been preserved after a court ruling – but could be limited by a public interest restriction.
Waste management company Veolia ES Nottinghamshire went to the Court of Appeal in a bid to keep details of its £850m PFI contract secret.
A judgement has now been made preserving the basic right of taxpayers – including journalists – to inspect accounts during the annual four week period when council documents are open for inspection.
But the three judges in the case said commercially sensitive information should only be disclosed if it is in the public interest – which individual councils will have to decide on before allowing access to documents.
During the court hearing in the summer, it was feared a ruling in Veolia’s favour could threaten journalists’ ability to write stories from information gathered while viewing accounts during the audit period.
Veolia launched the appeal after a High Court judge backed a decision by Nottinghamshire County Council to release details of its contract with the firm to waste campaigner Shlomo Dowen under the Audit Commission Act.
During the appeal, lawyers for Veolia argued the purpose of opening the accounts for inspection was purely to enable members of the public to raise issues with the district auditor, not for journalists to write stories.
Appeal court judges could have tightened up the act so people who viewed the accounts, including journalists, would be prevented from disclosing the information, other than to the auditor.
But, while one judge did want to impose this restriction, the other two decided they should not rule on how information could be used.
Mr Dowen said the judgement could make it harder for journalists to access information during the audit period because of the public interest test.
He said: “While the basic right has been preserved, it is not yet clear how local authorities will respond to the prospect of introducing a public interest test to decide whether to release to journalists or withhold.
“It does make things more difficult for journalists because it introduces this public interest test. If a journalist believes it is in the public interest, their only recourse would be a judicial review, which is risky and expensive.”