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Industry figures back journalists' right to seek information

Manchester Evening News editor Paul Horrocks and the director of the Society of Editors, Bob Satchwell, have responded to the Lord Chancellor’s speech on Freedom of Information by saying all they are fighting for is openness.

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

He said that 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.

In a letter to The Times, following the speech, Bob said: “We ask for no special privileges and we share the Lord Chancellor’s view that the purpose of greater openness is wider public knowledge that leads to greater public involvement and in the longer term, to better government.

“He says this will be achieved ‘over time’ yet he is reviewing the Act after little more than a year of operation. He talks about the need for efficiency and the importance of not wasting officials’ time.

“The total costs of implementing the Act are a mere £35m. That is a tiny proportion of government spending for what the Prime Minister once described as “the cornerstone of constitutional reform”.

He warned: “The Act has begun the process of changing the culture from one of ridiculous secrecy to one of sensible openness, but the Government’s proposals will hinder this progress. They will also allow those who do not want greater openness to find excuses not to answer questions.”

Paul Horrocks, who is president of the Society of Editors, wrote an editorial comment for his paper on the topic.

He said: “The Press stands accused of forcing a rethink for the Freedom Of Information Act through an unhealthy appetite for trivial and costly ‘fishing expeditions’.

“We are proud to act as the eyes and ears of the people. We make it our duty to ask difficult questions and scrutinise the work of those in power.

“It is impossible to place a price on freedom of information.

“Nationally, there are many examples of the valuable work done by journalists using the Freedom Of Information Act.

“Lord Falconer’s words were particularly cynical at a time when the future of the FOI is the subject of intense public debate.

“He has repeatedly voiced his support for a report calling for more stringent financial restrictions on the release of information.

“Within weeks, the hand of the Press – and in turn the public – could be significantly weakened.”