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Written evidence from the Newspaper Society 1. The Newspaper Society represents regional media companies which publish around 1,200 local and regional daily and weekly newspaper titles with a readership of 32 million each week and 1,600 associated websites attracting 42 million unique users every month. The Newspaper Society and its members campaigned strongly for the introduction of freedom of information legislation. They believe that the Freedom of Information Act 2000 has not dispelled the UKs culture of official secrecy, but is a helpful tool in extracting information from national, regional and local public bodies which would otherwise not be made public. However, improvements are still needed to the effectiveness, scope and operation of the Act and to encourage best practice by public bodies in its day to day implementation. An NS survey carried out in 2004, the year before the Act came into force, suggested that over 80% of regional daily newspaper editors and over 60% of local weekly newspaper editors ranked secrecy amongst public bodies of high or very high significance. They were sceptical about public bodies preparations for the Act, but reported that some had indeed commenced discussions with editors in pursuance of a joint initiative by the then Lord Chancellor and the Newspaper Society. Five years on, another NS survey in 2010 of 63 local daily and weekly newspaper editors suggested that the culture of secrecy had yet to be displaced 80% felt that local councils, police and health authorities were becoming more secretive, with just 10% suggesting that it was becoming easier to obtain information from them and 13% perceiving no change. More public authorities and public services now employ more press officers, but editors feel that their proliferation has tended to obstruct rather than facilitate the flow of information to the public, especially where their priorities are reputation management. They can reduce direct contact between reporters and those actually responsible for policy areas or decision-taking or operational activities, detrimental to constructive discussion and provision of information. FOI rights therefore become more important- and some members say that press officers sometimes ask journalists to submit FOI requests rather than seek the information via the press office. Legislative changes affecting the operation of public authorities and services and their practical consequences have also contributed to official secrecy, in addition to the development of data protection and related areas of law. For example, the changes in the way that local government is conducted, in cabinet rather than committee, the growth of contracting out, formation of companies and devolvement of public functions to others have effectively reduced public access to information rights, or opportunities for legally enforceable public scrutiny conferred by more specialized legislation. If the public body continues to perform the public functions, then FOIA can be helpful in providing






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alternative rights to information and thereby assisting local newspapers coverage of issues of relevance and importance to their local readership. However, a high proportion of requests can be unsuccessful - the 2010 survey respondees suggested that on average, the information requested was not obtained in just under a fifth of cases. 7. FOIA requests by the regional and local press in the course of investigation of, or for the purpose of reporting upon, the activities of public authorities should not be lightly dismissed as an excessive or illegitimate use of the Act, or the costs of response as an unjustified drain upon the latters resources. We refer you to any regional and local newspaper companies submissions made directly to the Committee,which may explain their use of the Act in investigation and reporting, perhaps illustrated by examples of the information which has been released to the public through articles that they have published as a result. It is possible that some local authorities information now make information routinely available, as part of publication schemes or otherwise, as a result of regional press FOI requests and stories which resonated with the public. We hope that the Committee might look at some of the easily accessible sources for examples of the information uncovered and the important, interesting and wide variety of subjects and issues raised in regional and local press stories as a result of FOI requests from a variety of sources. For an up to date round up of a range of such regional media FOI stories each week, the Committee might find very helpful the blog of David Higgerson, Digital Publishing Director, Trinity Mirror Regionals, including his Friday FOI round up http://en.wordpress.com/tag/foi-friday/ and http://davidhiggerson.wordpress.com/ http://www.newspapersoc.org.uk/11/mar/10/blog-tracks-local-medias-use-offoi-each-week In the early years of the Acts operation, the CFOI published a report summarising 500 FOI stories published in 2005, followed by a 250 page report in 2008 summarising more than a thousand stories published in national and regional newspapers in 2006 and 2007 as a result of disclosures under the FOI legislation of the UK and Scotland. http://www.newspapersoc.org.uk/3/oct/08/1001-foi-stories-in-regional-andnational-press 11. The 2008 reports introduction gave a good description of the benefits of the Act, providing information and informing debate on a wide range of issues:
The stories demonstrate the enormous range of information being released under FOI. They include significant disclosures about the Iraq conflict, the possible cause of gulf war syndrome, assaults on public service staff, the state of civil service morale, compensation paid to victims of medical accidents, schools efforts to inflate their exam results, hospital techniques for deflating waiting lists, the universities teetering on the edge of financial collapse, police officers with criminal records, government efforts to encourage gambling, lobbying by multinational oil, pharmaceutical and food companies, nuclear safety and other hazards, crimes committed by




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offenders on parole, unpublicised prison escapes, the expansion of the national DNA database and innumerable reports about high expenses claims and dubious public spending. These disclosures throw new light on the governments approach to many issues, identify shortcomings in public service delivery, highlight other problems which have not been addressed and show where policies have succeeded. They reveal the substantial contribution to accountability made by the FOI Act. Most of these stories are based on FOI requests made by journalists, though some may be reporting on FOI requests made by other requesters.


The FOIA has therefore helped to improve access rights and achieve wider disclosure of information. However, a culture of openness is not yet universal and both the Act itself and manner of observation require improvement.

13. Whatever the circulation areas of our members title, their journalists and editors have informed us of frustration in respect of the Acts operation. 14. They typically cite a wide variation in their local public bodies and public services practice and culture. Some authorities within their areas are helpful and co-operative. Others appear more obstructive, albeit some of those might have helpful FOI officials battling against the less helpful prevailing culture of their organisation.

15. Despite the intention that all FOI requests should be treated in the same way, whatever their origin, our members report that journalists requests may well be accorded different treatment by some public bodies, possibly because of the perceived likelihood of public disclosure. 16. There are concerns about delay in responding to requests, including failure to comply with recommended time frames when considering the application of exemptions. Journalists feel that there is an over-readiness to apply and rely upon exemptions to refuse FOI requests. Exemptions are misunderstood, misinterpreted or misapplied. The requestors will persist and such problems will sometimes be overcome as a result of internal review or recourse to the ICO. However, this entails further delay.


18. The NS and its members would therefore firmly oppose any changes to the Act which could deter requests or allow more requests to be refused. 19. The NS would oppose any changes to the legislation that would widen public bodies grounds to dismiss FOI requests on the grounds of triviality or irritation. The Acts provision for refusal of vexatious requests is quite sufficient - and some of our members suggest that it might be too capable of misinterpretation or inappropriate application. 20. The Committee may be aware of the strength of regional press opposition to past proposals put forward by previous governments to curb use of the Freedom of Information Act and thereby the costs incurred in responding to them (after their economic analysis had identified that the curbs proposed would impact particularly upon the type of requests which might take more time to answer, such as those put forward by MPs researchers and the media).

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21. We maintain that introduction of charges and fees for requests or reviews or appeals would deter the public from exercising their access to information rights. Alteration of costs and associated time limits and the calculation of either or both for the purpose of enabling requests to be refused under the Act (e.g. allowing consideration or redaction time to be taken into account or aggregation of the number or costs or time taken to answer requests from an organisation or person, with accompanying identification checks) - would all too easily be exploited to enable blanket refusal of requests. The release of important information or embarrassing information could all too easily be blocked on submission of the request, simply because it could be said that the public body anticipated some exemption or other provision of the Act might have to be considered in order to answer the request, which would inevitably take it over the relevant limits. Any such request could be difficult to challenge. 22. We would also certainly oppose the introduction of any exemptions or widening of existing exemptions to make refusal easier. Cabinet papers, material relating to cabinet discussions and information relating to policy formulation are already well protected by the Act. Conversely, we would welcome the abolition of Ministerial veto and removal or narrowing of exemptions. The NS would welcome any proposals to strengthen the FOIA and thereby further encourage a prevailing culture of openness, rather than official secrecy. There needs to be even greater emphasis upon an enforceable presumption of provision of information in response to a FOIA request, even if it might fall under an exemption. The NS would support further extension of the FOIA, not only by designation of other public bodies but also by designation of contractors and others performing public functions on behalf of public bodies We welcome the steps that the Government has already taken to address some loopholes or lacuna . In addition, we refer you to submissions made by the Campaign for Freedom of Information on further improvements needed. In order to improve public access to information at local level, we would ask the Government to consider using its powers under section 5 of the Act not only to designate other bodies which considered to be exercising public functions, but also to designate any contractors which are providing, under contracts made with public authorities, any service whose provision is a function of that authority. We also fear that Government initiatives, on Localism and the Big Society, could actually lead to changes in application and loss of more specialist public access to information rights, and hope that the Committee considers whether it would be better to maintain these as well as ensure FOIA rights apply. For example, the Localism Act 2011 for instance does not automatically extend existing local government legislation on public rights of access to meetings and documentation to authorities operating under new arrangements permitted by the Act. In the default of regulations being drawn up by the Minister, in certain circumstances, local authorities, whether elected representatives or the





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officials/official to whom they have delegated their ( widened) functions, could choose to carry out their functions, meet and take decisions in secret, with no public rights of access to relevant meetings, discussion, decision-taking or documentation. There is further lacuna in the remit of their scrutiny and oversight committees, especially where issues affecting more than one local authority are under consideration. In such cases, the public would no longer have their previous statutory local government access to meetings rights but may be able to fall back upon FOIA rights to obtain information. We hope that the Committees post legislative scrutiny will check whether there are such areas of overlap and perhaps try to ensure that specialist access to meetings rights and access to information rights are not unnecessarily lost, merely because the public may have residual rights under FOIA, but appropriate statutory alternatives are drawn up and implemented. 27. In addition, current proposed reforms to local government, health service and the Big Society initiative could all shift the performance of public functions to contractors and private undertakings, but there will be no automatic corresponding extension of the statutory provisions on public access to information rights, public rights of inspection and challenge relating to independent audits, or other rights of public scrutiny to maintain proper public oversight of the service, service provider or deployment of any public funds. When announcing the introduction of FOIA post-legislative scrutiny by the Justice Committee, the Deputy Prime Minister recognised that such changes could result in such loss of statutory rights ( as the line between public and private changed) and that the Justice Committees post- legislative scrutiny would help ensure that the publics FOI rights were maintained as any such changes took place. Extension of FOIA would at least help to maintain some public rights of access to relevant information and provide a degree of potential public oversight. However, we also suggest that where the old regime gave stronger rights to the public than FOIA alone, creation of equivalent specific access rights may be necessary in addition to FOIA rights. The Governments transparency agenda ought to be translated into strong statutory disclosure and publication obligations wherever possible, inorder to facilitate public access and public scrutiny. Different Government agendalocalism, deregulation- should not be used to justify loss of public rights to information about the activities of public bodies and provision of public services, or other public rights of scrutiny. 28. There should be regular periodic review of FOIA and provision for swift implementation of any recommendations for its extension and for improvement of public access to information rights. This has to continue alongside practical measures to ensure that public bodies designated under the Act actually operate within the spirit of the Act and a culture of openness.

February 2012