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Journalists’ FoI requests more likely to be rejected, stats show

Neil MackayPolitical chiefs stand accused of being “desperate to dodge scrutiny” after new figures showed journalists are having more Freedom of Information requests rejected than other applicants.

FoI campaigners have hit out after Glasgow’s Sunday Herald reported almost half of all requests made to the Scottish Government in the 2015/16 financial year by members of the media were partially or fully refused.

The 47pc rejection rate for journalists compared with 38pc for all requests.

The figures, which were originally obtained by the Scottish Labour Party, showed that in each of the past seven financial years, a greater proportion of FoI requests from journalists were rejected than those from the public as a whole.

The results come after 23 Scottish journalists called in June for a review of the way Holyrood deals with FoI requests, amid claims they are routinely being screened for potential political damage by special advisers.

Sunday Herald editor Neil Mackay, pictured above left, told HTFP: “This is a concern. A vibrant democracy needs to be as transparent as possible – and ensuring journalists have access to information in the interest of the public is the bedrock of democracy.

“We will continue our reporting and monitoring of this matter to ensure that freedom on information laws are upheld, respected and implemented to the letter.”

The figures also found civil servants have also been responding later to requests from MSPs than to the population at large.

Labour MSP and FoI campaigner Neil Findlay told the Herald: “This system is being abused and it is destroying trust in government.”

He added: “These laws are supposed to increase transparency and accountability of government, but the handling of freedom of information requests in recent times has all the hallmarks of a secretive government desperate to dodge scrutiny.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “In the majority of cases, the Scottish Government responds on time and in full to FoI requests. The increasing volume and complexity of some requests can, however, prove time consuming and has the potential to impact seriously on the work of government.

“The number of FOI requests we receive has risen by almost half in recent years with more than 2,000 requests now regularly made each year.

“We are working with the Information Commissioner to ensure we continue to provide information in as timely a way as possible, and now proactively publish FOI responses on the Scottish Government website.”

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  • August 9, 2017 at 12:55 pm
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    When a member of the public submits an FoI, it’s usually due to an issue which affects them are a campaign they are running. When a journalist submits an an FoI, while the majority are perfectly worthy and should be responded to properly, there are those that abuse this Act by way of of lazy journalism with nothing but shock-value or stupidity in mind. In these case, public bodies are perfectly within their rights to refuse to respond.

    For example, several years ago an FoI was submitted to a council to find out if they had plans for a zombie apocalypse. Yes, just a light-hearted bit of fun. Then, all of sudden, loads of councils received the same FoI.

    Anyone who knows about the officiousness of local government, you will realise that these requests have to go through a whole process from the FoI team to emergency planning officers to the comms team and then to directors for information/approval before the response goes out. All of this is a waste of the time and resources of people being paid-for by the taxpayer and, as I suggest, councils are right to refuse this sort of thing.

    Let’s also look at the ‘biscuit budget’! Loads of councils still get endless FoIs about how much has been spent on coffee, tea, biscuits and lunches. The reality for most is that their budgets have been slashed by hundreds of millions from central government and the biscuits and lunches went years ago! A recent FoI of my local council showed something like a £20 annual spend per councillor on tea and coffee. What a waste of an FoI!

    I have no doubt that some public bodies occasionally find ways to refuse an FoI due to what it might reveal and it is critical that this is not allowed to happen!

    However, there’s a minority of journalists who need to take greater responsibility in what they invoke this Act for. Sometimes, a simple conversation with the right people will uncover the basic information they need then, if things get tougher further down the line, the FoI can be used more effectively by citing more specific requests about the information which isn’t as forthcoming.

    I’ve seen so many FoI requests and thought ‘if you’d just asked this question for that information instead, you’d have a story’. As it is, the detail is missed and the story remains hidden.

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