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Watchdog backs newspaper in FoI ‘fishing expedition’ row

The information watchdog has backed a monthly free newspaper over a Freedom of Information request branded a “fishing expedition” by councillors.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has ruled Hackney Council was “not entitled” to rely on exemptions it cited for refusing to respond to the Hackney Citizen’s FoI request about press releases prepared by the authority in anticipation of media requests on certain subjects.

The Citizen reports that in February last year it asked the council to provide its “if asked”, or “reactive use”, statements which covered a certain three-month period in 2013.

It refused the request and claimed exemption under Section 36 of the Freedom of Information Act – that releasing the information would “prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs”.

The council claimed that if they provided the information it would “inhibit staff” when providing advice due to fear of “background information” being disclosed which might work directly against facilitating the “free and frank exchange of views” during its communication teams’ discussions.

The authority later cited a second exemption under Section 14 (1) of the FoI Act, making the case that the request was “vexatious” because it was “cynically relying upon pot-luck”.

It further argued the request constituted a “fishing expedition” and had “no value” because the request was not asking for information about a particular event or issue.

The ICO ruled the council was “not entitled” to rely on the Section 36 exemption, and said that it had not managed to demonstrate that the request was vexatious, adding the authority had “merely assumed” that the request had no serious purpose and said there was “no obligation” on people using the Act to justify their requests in order for them to be considered valid.

Citizen editor Keith Magnum told HTFP: “Our so-called ‘fishing expedition’ should not have been necessary.

“Public institutions which refuse to publish any prepared statements are failing to be transparent and accountable.

“The council’s claims that our FoI request was vexatious because it might cause us to ask them further follow-up questions is ridiculous – it has a press office to deal with such enquiries.

“In the interests of open government, councils should be publishing all ‘reactive use’ statements as a matter of course.”

Hackney Council has yet to respond to HTFP’s request for a comment.


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  • July 15, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    Without knowing the full background to the events leading up the FoI request, it’s difficult to pass an informed comment, so what I would like to know is why the newspaper did not ask the ‘if asked” questions in the first place if it was chasing a particular story or stories – or was it just hoping to strike lucky about issues it knew little or nothing about by putting in a blanket request. If the former, then its journalist were not doing their jobs. If the latter, then surely all this ruling will do in future is to stop local authorities and other official bodies from preparing any “reactive use” statements on controversial issues.

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  • July 16, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    I agree with Charles’ comment. While I do not know the full background to this, simply putting in a request for local authorities to disclose their ‘if asked’ and reactive statements, without actually finding out their own information on a specific issue, does seem a bit lazy. If this becomes widespread practice, this will ultimately prevent comms teams from preparing reactive statements – instead, they will just find other ways to get ready for any potential negative publicity, for example, storing information in other forms that would not constitute a formal statement. If journalists want to find important stories of public interest, they need to be speaking to their sources, researching, investigating, digging … basically, being journalists.

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