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Image: Keila Guimaraes (City student)Image: Keila Guimaraes (City student)
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Freedom of Information Act rated five out of ten

UK Information Commissioner quizzed by journalists at City event to mark ten years of FOI

The success of the nullFreedom of Information Act should be given a score of "five out of ten", eminent journalists have told the UK's Information Commissioner.

Journalists explained their frustrations with the FOI system to Christopher Graham at a City University London debate held to mark the tenth anniversary of the legislation.

The event also marked the launch of a new book on the issue, 'FOI ten years on: freedom fighting or lazy journalism?', which was co-edited by City's Tom Felle and former BBC producer John Mair.

Panellist Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC's FOI specialist, said some organisations were more open than ten years ago but for others, like the police, the situation had "deteriorated".

"I tend to say 'five out of ten'," he said. "It hasn't been as good as we'd hoped, it hasn't been as bad as some other people feared."

The danger… when it's such a shut-down, supressed, secretive system… is stories still need to come out.
Professor Heather Brooke

Mr Graham, who is head of regulatory body the Information Commissioner's Office, did not offer his own rating but replied he was "more of a glass half-full man".

"More and more, you've got governments and public authorities seeing that proactive publication and open data is the way forward," he said.

"I would say [after] ten years...Cover small it's working pretty well. But it's up to you as users of the Freedom of Information Act to keep pushing."

The event, which took place in the Oliver Thompson Lecture Theatre on Wednesday 4th February, saw around 200 journalists, students and academics gather to discuss on the impact of FOI.

City's Professor Roy Greenslade chaired the panel, which also featured Tom Felle, Mr Graham and Professor Heather Brooke, an FOI campaigner and City academic who helped break the MPs' expenses scandal.

Tom Felle, whose book features contributions from experts in 20 countries, agreed with a "five-out-of-ten" score and told the audience there was "remarkable similarity in problems with FOI around the world".

"I think the ten years of FOI in the UK have seen a transformation in the relationship between citizen and public bureaucracy," he said.

"The problem with FOI is at a political level - it's intensely political and government holds all the cards."

He stressed there needed to be a culture change within government organisations, which he said made it difficult to retrieve information on politically embarrassing or contentious issues.

Around the world, governments have got fed up with this stuff and they are pushing back.
Christopher Graham, UK Information Commissioner

Mr Graham defended the openness of UK public bodies and said more funding from the Government and fewer "silly" requests from journalists would improve authorities' ability to respond.

He explained the UK system was more efficient than in previous years and said other nations were now less co-operative with FOI requests.

"Around the world, governments have got fed up with this stuff and they are pushing back," he said.

The BBC's Martin Rosenbaum claimed that the UK Cabinet Office was the worst offender for delaying or refusing the release of details.

However, Mr Graham said it was "not terribly surprising" that requests to the most senior politicians were not always successful.

Professor Brooke addedHeather Brooke "short-sighted" public bodies should be more in favour of FOI because it would reduce the number of stories that are written through leaks by individuals with political agendas.

"The danger… when it's such a shut-down, supressed, secretive system… is stories still need to come out," she said.

"All the news that comes into the public domain has such a hard spin on it because it's always coming from a leak."

The event was opened by City's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Paul Curran, who revealed the institution anticipated it would receive one FOI request every working day in 2015 after seeing the number rise from 118 requests in 2012 to 220 last year.

The debate was attended by journalists from a range of national media outlets and was featured in articles by the Guardian, The Independent, Press Gazette, and HoldtheFrontPage.

A live blog of the event by City Visiting Professor Adam Tinworth can be read here. Tom Felle has also written for The Conversation on the topic of FOI.

EVENT PHOTOGRAPHY: Keila Guimaraes (City student)

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