The Journal in Newcastle is ready to claim a record for the fastest turnaround on a freedom of information request so far.
Reporter Hayley Beattie received information from the Home Office less than two hours after putting a request in – despite a press officer telling her that the facts she wanted were commercial secrets.
Hayley was chasing a tip-off about inmates at high security Durham prison being employed to open mail marked ‘return to sender’ – some containing cheques and bank details.
At first, a Home Office press officer confirmed the story but refused to name the private contractor the Prison Service was working with on the grounds that the information was commercially sensitive.
Hayley immediately responded by asking for the name under the FOI Act and, when the press officer declined, contacted the Information Officer for the Home Office with an e-mailed request.
Less than two hours later the same press officer phoned Hayley with the name.
The exclusive story made the front page splash of The Journal and was followed up regionally and nationally.
Hayley said: “The press officer never mentioned my FOI request but I feel sure it made the difference.
“To begin with she refused to even give me the name of the information officer, but I discussed this with the newsdesk and we knew we had a strong case.”
Journal editor Brian Aitken has invested in training for all staff at the Newcastle paper in the workings and use of FOI.
The paper has run a string of exclusives based on FOI requests – Hayley’s prison story was followed up by a splash from health reporter Liz Hands revealing one of the country’s leading transplant hospitals, the Freeman, was serving child patients the infamous ‘Turkey Twizzlers’ criticised by television chef Jamie Oliver.
Brian said: “I want my reporters to use FOI as a normal part of their working day. It’s not just about big investigations, it’s about opening doors on running stories.
“My reporters are getting more confident about FOI the more they see it being used by their colleagues.
“Hayley and Liz have shown the way for others. Liz had the bright idea of asking hospitals for their actual menus under FOI, not just budgets and accounts, and that gave us the Turkey Twizzler line. It shows what a bit of imagination and good use of the law can get you.”