A government-appointed commission is currently considering more than 30,000 responses to its ongoing review of the Act, with councils calling for the introduction of charges for requests and fresh curbs on what can be made available.
HoldtheFrontPage has submitted its archive of 204 stories illustrating how regional newspapers have used the FoI Act in the public interest over the past 15 years.
Now Paul has written to commission, warning restricting FoI would be “entirely antipathetic to the mood of the times” and arguing that the public “expect more, not less transparency” in the way they are governed.
Writing in a personal capacity as Fleet Street’s longest serving editor, he echoed calls by the Society of Editors, which launched its #HandsOffFOI campaign in October, for the Act to be widened.
He said Whitehall should adopt a default position of openness unless there are over-riding reasons for secrecy and said that the government should steer away from governing ‘by press release’ if it wanted to instil confidence in the public.
Wrote Paul: “In my 27 years as an editor I have never seen Britain’s political process held in such low esteem by voters. Curtailing FOi will inevitably contribute to even greater voter cynicism about an elitist political class protecting its own interests, rather than the public’s.
“In the main, I suspect, dislike of FoI is driven by Whitehall’s belief that civil servants should be exempt from public scrutiny. This is in my view counter – productive, and perceived by the public simply as a compulsion to cover backsides. Civil servants should remember that with authority comes responsibility. They should also remember who pays their wages.”
Paul also tackled head-on the claim that the costs of processing FoI requests could be better spent.
He said: “The cost of providing FoI is a red herring. According to the latest Ministry of Justice figures, the cost of FOi to central government (£5.6m) is £700,000 less than the cost of ferrying ministers in limousines provided by the Government Car Service (a figure which itself has been subject to cover-up).
“It is one-fiftieth of the cost of the Government’s army of 3,650 press officers and spin doctors. There are now nearly as many Government press officers as there are national newspaper journalists.”
He concluded: “I have found nothing in the Commission’s call for evidence which convinces me that the Act is not working as it should, and ten years is far too soon for a general review. The Act should be left as it is – or strengthened to a llow more scrutiny of government.”