A leading journalism training college has delivered a 6-page submission opposing changes to the Freedom of Information Act.
The Government has appointed a commission made up mainly of opponents of FoI to look at watering-down the legislation.
But Sheffield University has submitted a body of evidence to the Commission setting out how it has been used by students and journalists, and strongly opposing the introduction of charges for FoI requests.
It accused the Commission of taking a “one-sided approach” with the questions set out in its call for evidence, which included asking whether the “burden” which Foi places on public authorities was justified by the public’s right to know.
The Sheffield submission states: “The question itself is one-sided in talking only – and repeatedly – of ‘burdens’. The Commission does not appear to have called for evidence of public “benefits” brought about by use of the Act.
“Even if the public good is restricted to benefits that can be expressed in monetary terms, how much money might those using FOI have already helped save public authorities by uncovering incompetence and wrongdoing, by encouraging the tightening up of procedures, or by acting as a deterrent to wrongdoing? The amount of money saved is probably incalculable.
“Within the journalism industry FoI has been used effectively by journalists working for news organisations that have no budget for investigative journalism. They have been able to use freedom of information to explore important issues and bring them to public attention precisely because there was no fee for making an FOI request.
“To give just one example, a South Yorkshire journalist at a cash-strapped weekly newspaper with no budget for investigative journalism managed to use FoI requests to a range of relevant authorities over an 18-month period to investigate alleged misuse of public money, eventually winning the Paul Foot Award for her efforts.”
“If journalists working for mainstream news organisations are likely to be inhibited from using FOI by the introduction of charges, it is even more likely that those people producing local and “hyperlocal” news services online will be priced out of making FOI requests.
“The imposition of a charge will clearly act as a deterrent for many general citizens as well as for many journalists, particularly those working for regional, local and hyperlocal media and in specialist areas as such health and the environment.”
The Sheffield team also challenge Commons Leader Chris Grayling over his comment that journalists are “misusing” the Act to “create stories.”
Citing the hundreds of stories listed in HTFP’s Freedom of Information section, it asks which of them should be regarded as a “misuse” of the Act.