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Journalism academics warn of new era of ‘official secrecy’

FOIAcademics from a leading journalism college have warned of a return to the era of ‘official secrecy’ if the government persists with plans to waken the Freedom of Information Act.

A government-appointed Commission has received more than 30,000 submissions following its call for evidence on whether the 2000 FoI Act should be amended.

It is due to report to government in the New Year on recommendations for reform  which may include the introduction of fees for requests and new exemptions from FoI laws.

However City University London’s Department of Journalism wants to extend the scope of the legislation to cover, for instance, private companies who carry out work for public sector organisations.

Its submission, written by academics Professor Heather Brooke, Tom Felle and Jonathan Hewett, says FoI has helped mobe public bodies away from a “culture of secrecy to a culture of openness.”

However, they warned that the cultural change required to make civil and public service bodies truly open, transparent and accountable “had yet to take hold.”

They wrote: “Much of the language used by local government managers, by senior civil servants, and indeed by the Commission itself, represents an extremely narrow view of FOI steeped in the Westminster model of government thinking, in essence the primacy of ‘official secrecy.’

“The Commission is aware that the UK has a long-standing tradition of state secrecy embedded in both its civil administration and its security / military traditions.

“This culture of elitism and ‘official secrecy’ is evidenced in the Commission’s focus on ‘safe spaces’ and the ‘burden’ of providing the public with meaningful information.

“This thinking has its roots in a Westminster model that favours elitist rule rather than the more enlightened understanding of democracy which vests power in the people.”

The trio warned that changes to introduce a “safe space” for civil servants to advise ministers would lead to a “dangerous space” where information that is in the public interest is kept from the public.

They called for a number of changes to the legislation to improve its operation, including real-time publication of data via, a “properly resourced’ Information Commissioner’s Office to police the Act, and bringing private companies who carry out public work within its ambit.

HoldtheFrontPage, which along with Press Gazette is backing the Society of Editors’ HandsOffFoi campaign, has submitted as evidence its archive of 204 stories on how regional newspapers have used FoI in the public interest.

The City University submission can be downloaded here.