The Western Morning News has won its secrecy battle with the Government over making public a report into repairs to a leaky tunnel at the gateway to Cornwall.
The row blew up when a local MP found that a Highways Agency report into the state of the Saltash Tunnel had never been published, despite fears from constituents over the escalating repair costs.
The Saltash Tunnel cost £11m of public money to build in 1988. The current refurbishment, due to be completed next month, will cost a further £8m.
And following pressure from the Westcountry morning newspaper, and despite Government claims its contents would not be “helpful” to the public, the report has been made public – with the names of individuals mentioned blanked out.
As he prepared to publish details in today’s paper, Western Morning News editor Barrie Williams said: “It is the responsibility of the press, in such circumstances, to make a fuss. And the Western Morning News was happy to oblige.
“We went into print demanding that the report be published. Transport minister David Jamieson, who also happens to be the MP for Plymouth Devonport, refused and gave what we believed to be unconvincing reasons as to why.
“Any newspaper worth its salt, when told by a Government minister that it cannot see a report commissioned by a public body about a public structure used daily by thousands of members of the public, has a duty to keep on fighting for that report to be published.”
He added: “When the minister insists – as Mr Jamieson did – that to publish would “not be helpful” it must challenge such an arrogant assertion.
“When he claims – as he did – that the report could be libellous, it must question his interpretation of the law of defamation.
“And when he suggests – as he did – that publication might make it difficult for the Government to get professionals to write frank reports in the future, it must pour scorn on such an assertion.
“The WMN did all of the above.”
The paper took legal advice which confirmed its suspicions – that under the Government’s own code of conduct – Code of Practice on Access to Government Information – it had a moral responsibility to, wherever possible, release information into the public domain.
In a letter to Mr Jamieson, the WMN demanded he publish the report – and warned that the Parliamentary Ombudsman would be informed if he failed to do so.
The threat worked and after two weeks of newspaper reports the minister changed his mind.
Barrie said: “This, he said, was because of irresponsible reports suggesting that it raised questions about safety. Not so. Our reporting of this issue has been responsible at all times and we have never at any stage published scare stories about the tunnel’s safety.
“We know – and our readers know – that without our pressure and campaigning this report would probably never have been published; this debate about the real reason for the appalling state of the Saltash Tunnel would never have taken place and this Government would have stuck to its secret ways unchallenged.”
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