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Local press to provide forum for debate under FOI

Journalists on local newspapers will find that the rules behind releasing Freedom of Information data will help them to do their job, according to regional press man Paul Francis.

Paul, who is political editor for the Kent Messenger Group, predicted the Act will be a major tool in the hands of local newspapers when it comes into force in the New Year.

And he said that the expected public interest test faced by local authorities, when deciding which information to release, would help release information even in “exempt” categories.

He said they could find it hard to veto anything, as their work fell within public interest categories.

He said: “The public interest test will determine in many cases whether public bodies should place certain information in the public domain.

“Journalists have rightly had reservations about the 23 exempt categories in the Act which in many cases will mean there is no automatic disclosure of information.

“But there will be a statutory requirement that even when the information is exempt authorities will have to apply the public interest test.

“What this will mean is that the balance is rightly tilted towards openness. Basically, information must be released unless it is judged that the public interest in not disclosing it is greater than the public interest in releasing it.”

Speaking at the Newspaper Society/Press Gazette-organised event, he went on to discuss what counted as being in the public interest.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs had already issued guidance on the Act, which asks:

  • If the information furthers understanding and participation in public debate of the issues of the day;
  • Whether it promotes accountability and transparency by public authorities;
  • Whether it promotes accountability and transparency in public spending – in areas such as councillors’ expenses;
  • If the information allows people to understand decisions made which affect their lives – and gives the chance to challenge those decisions.

    Paul said: “I have to think that if public authorities do genuinely embrace the spirit of FOI, not just the letter, and apply these factors they will actually find it quite hard to veto disclosure.

    “Newspapers, especially local newspapers, do lots of different things, but one of their key functions is holding public bodies to account – from councils, health trusts, police authorities to unelected quangos.

    “We play a role in explaining to readers what is being done in their name with their money by people they have elected, and sometimes by people who haven’t been elected.

    “It is my view that local newspapers – sometimes more so that national papers – provide a forum for debate that does allow individuals to feel they have a stake in what is happening in their communities, and a chance to influence the decision-making process.”

    He said he expected FOI will be a valuable tool – “our ability to push open doors which have been firmly shut until now will be enhanced,” he added.

    He said local authorities should start asking the kind of questions about their decisions that journalists routinely do, to help them decide what information to release.

    But he added: “As a journalist who has had first-hand experience of how they tend to operate I am rather gloomy that they will, because many seem to have adopted the ostrich approach to FOI and would rather not speak about it.”

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