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Call for media to work with public authorities to to improve FOI

Constitutional Affairs Secretary Lord Falconer has called on the media to work with public authorities to produce precise and targeted Freedom of Information requests.

Open-ended requests for information, or numerous “fishing” requests by journalists simply seeking to see if anything interesting would emerge, could jeopardise the needs of other requesters, he said.

Journalists accounted for about 16 per cent of the total costs of central government FoI requests, at a cost of around £4m.

Lord Falconer’s comments came as he delivered the Lord Williams of Mostyn Memorial Lecture at Gray’s Inn, central London, as he discussed the Government’s proposals for changes in the way for calculating the limits at which an FOI request can be refused on cost grounds alone.

He said freedom of information was intended to benefit the public not the press, and although the Government was committed to openness it could not be a “free for all”.

He said: “Openness is not a quality which should be used by either the media or the state purely for their own sectional interests.

“The Government did not introduce freedom of information in order to do something ‘for journalism’. We did it for the people.

“The job of the Government is not to provide page leads for the papers, but information for the citizen.

“Freedom of Information was never considered to be, and for our part will never be considered to be, a research arm for the media.”

He added: “The media clearly plays an important role in scrutinising and holding government to account. And none of the proposed regulations is in any way seeking to target the media or to restrict their freedoms.

“But people, not the press, must be the priority. Information itself is the key, not those whose primary business is to purvey information to others, whether on air, on line or on paper. Freedom of information provides a right to know, not a right to tell.

“What I would say to journalists, editors and producers is this. Recognise that FOI comes at a cost to other public services.

“Work with public authorities to produce requests that are precise and targeted – which will result in the release of information of benefit to the public.

“Many FOI stories fall into that public benefit category. Fishing expeditions for diary items do not. Help us continue the success of freedom of information and make it work better.

“Strike a balance which recognises that the interests of the press and the sensible operation of FOI may be different.”