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‘Ludicrous’ council to treat written press enquiries as FoI requests

Sarah WardA journalist has slammed a council press office’s “ludicrous” decision to treat written media enquiries as Freedom of Information requests.

Sarah Ward, who runs Northamptonshire-based news website NN Journal, has hit out at East Northamptonshire District Council, which has claimed written enquiries by the press are “by definition” FoI requests and will be treated as such.

The claim was made in a response to Sarah, pictured, after she asked how many applications for coronavirus self-isolation payments were refused by the council and a brief explanation as to why.

In a response, which has been seen by HTFP, the authority’s press office urged Sarah to submit her questions as an FoI request.

When Sarah asked why, the press office wrote: “If a media enquiry is received in writing, it is by the definition of an FoI request at section 8 of the Act, an FoI request, and is therefore, subject to the requirements of the Act.

“FoI requests must be answered within 20 working days but sooner if possible, so logging a request under FoI should not cause any delay at all to your response.

“Logging a request through FoI in fact gives you more right to firstly ensure that you receive the information requested and secondly, it gives you the right to challenge the council’s response if we refused to disclose any of the information due to an exemption under the Act.”

The council has since defended its position on the matter but says it may also “choose to deal with” some enquiries without referring journalists to the FoI Act.

Sarah, who launched NN Journal last month with fellow journalist Natalie Bloomer, has now written to the council’s chief executive David Oliver to express her concerns over the issue, but has yet to receive a response.

Speaking to HTFP, Sarah said: “I was just incredulous when I received the response after I emailed a question about the number of self-isolation payments made by the authority to its residents.

“This was a standard, straightforward enquiry that could have no doubt been quickly answered by calling an officer within the benefits department.

“Instead what the council has done is twist the definition of an FoI enquiry in order to suit its own purposes.

“An FoI enquiry does need to be in writing, but a written media enquiry is not by that same reasoning an FoI enquiry.

“East Northants Council’s new and incorrect definition of a media enquiry totally changes the relationship between journalist and communications officer and if its definition was correct, it would be pointless to submit any media enquiry.

“I find the assertion that actually an FoI request is in the best interests of the journalist as ludicrous.

“By the time the information has been produced within the 20-day FoI timeframe the story will no doubt have moved on and I perhaps cynically see it as a way to kick a potentially sensitive topic into the long grass.

“These days whenever I ask a question about financials or figures an almost standard response is that I must submit an FoI.”

The controversy comes as the four district councils in Northamptonshire including East Northants prepare to merge into a new unitary authority.

Added Sarah: “My fear is that this could become the process for the new authority. Journalists are acting on behalf of residents and have the right to know how their council is operating and how funds are being spent.

“This is especially a sensitive subject in Northamptonshire where a lack of transparency and mismanagement has led to the financial collapse and a reduction of services to residents.

“I would hope East Northants Council’s media department recognises its error, drops this incorrect practice and instead gets on with the job in hand, providing information to enquiring journalists.”

A council spokeswoman told HTFP: “If a media enquiry is received in writing, it is by the definition of an FoI request at section 8 of the Act, an FOI request, and is therefore, subject to the requirements of the Act.

“If a media enquiry is asking for the council’s comment on something (where it’s not recorded information and could be seen as an ‘opinion’), this is a media enquiry.

“If it’s a question for information which the comms team believes it will be able to retrieve pretty much instantly from colleagues, we may also just choose to deal with this as a media enquiry.

“However, if it is going to take a bit of time to pull the information together (as is the case here), it’s better for both the council and journalist for it to be treated under FOI because it ensures we keep a good track of the request and we are legally required to respond to it through FoI.”