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With rights come responsibilities

Journalists have been asked to remember their responsibilities as the new Freedom of Information Act is brought in.

Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer told a law conference that they were the prism through which the public viewed open government.

He outlined what the news regulations meant to journalists and to the public, how the Government would make them work, and what the media needed to do to make them work.

He said: “But what we should really be looking for is whether there is a shift in approach across the piece. Whether public bodies are becoming more open, whether the standard of information and of debate is being raised.

“As journalists you have a clear part to play here. You are the prism through which the public will often look at open government.

“We are taking our responsibilities seriously. We are determined to make this work in a way that is pragmatic, sensible and shifts the balance in a very real way. I hope you will share this approach.

“This is a powerful new tool and I hope that you will welcome the opportunity to use it constructively.

“One of the reasons why freedom of information has been vital in opposition, but unappealing in government is because it presents risks.

“More cautious Governments would say that freedom of information means more challenges. More questions. More complaints.”

But he reminded his audience of a recent report in the Ipswich Evening Star, where the paper approached the police to look at the files on a notorious, decades-old unsolved murder.

The police dealt with the request as if it were a request after January 2 and opened their files.

Lord Falconer said: “It led to a great splash in the paper. But more importantly it started to build a better connection between the media, the public institution – in this case the police – and the public.

“There was openness and people could see for themselves the facts of the case and make their own judgements based on all the information.

“And it is in your interest to use the act wisely, so that people can see the full picture. Freedom of information, used properly, will mean better journalism.”

He explained that politics rarely achieved anything without a struggle.

And he admitted that securing freedom of information had been a “real struggle”.

But he said there was no gain without pain, adding: “The difficulty of opening up Whitehall is a measure of precisely how important it is to do it.

“One of the tests of the success of this Freedom of Information Act will be the extent to which it improves the quality of government.”

At the Newspaper Society/Press Gazette-organised conference, he also warned that the Freedom of Information Act would not signify a ‘free for all’ and promise disclosure of every piece of advice, discussion and disagreement, and that exemptions were there for good reason..

And he claimed that if the balance went too far the other way, good government would be impossible.

“Governments of all political stripes, need to be able to reflect upon policy options,” he said, “To share their ideas and proposals candidly before collectively deciding on an official policy line.

“FOI will not change this. It is not in the public interest for policy to be formulated in an atmosphere that prevents Ministers and officials from thinking across the whole range of options.

“Similarly FOI does not allow for real-time access to Cabinet minutes. And nor should it. There needs to be balance to allow access to information, but also to allow scope for private debate, discussion and dissent.

“In individual cases, we need to look at the balance between the need for confidentiality as a means of promoting effective government, and openness as the best means of promoting that same objective.”

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