Editors call on government to protect the Freedom of Information Act

British newspaper editors call on the government to protect the Freedom of Information Act amid concern over blocked requests

  • Government operates secretive Clearing House allegedly stifling FOI disclosure
  • Civil Servants accused of blacklisting journalists and blocking responses
  • Editors have written to MPs calling for an inquiry into UK government’s ‘treatment of and policies for dealing with FOI requests’

Newspapers and publishers have today united to urge MPs to investigate the Government’s ‘disgraceful’ obstruction of legitimate Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

Boris Johnson has said he supports press freedom in Britain but an investigation has revealed that his Government operates a secretive taxpayer-funded ‘Clearing House’ allegedly stifling disclosure of data.

Today civil servants have been accused of ‘black listing’ journalists, blocking their queries or delaying responses for months or even years when the law states they must be returned within 20 working days, according to an investigation by OpenDemocracy.

The editors of the Daily Mirror, The Guardian, The Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times and Paul Dacre, former editor of the Daily Mail, are among those who have signed a letter sent to William Wragg, The Tory Chair of the Public Administration Committee, and Julian Knight, the Tory chairman of the Media Committee. 

‘We believe that there are now strong grounds for a review of the UK government’s treatment of and policies for dealing with Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, and would urge the minister to address these concerns’, it says.

Tory MP David Davis has said the Cabinet Office’s Clearing House operation is ‘certainly against the spirit’ of the Freedom of Information Act, ‘and probably the letter [of the law], too.’

Britain’s newspapers and publishers, including former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, have signed a letter sent to MPs demanding an investigation into the Government’s treatment of FOI

The Cabinet Office (pictured in Lockdown) is alleged to have a team that black lists journalists and also advising departments on how to wriggle out of releasing information

FOI has led to thousands of news stories of national importance, including exposing MPs fiddling their expenses, proof that police are no longer pursuing all crimes and the heinous wasting of cash by local and national government on pet projects and bumper salaries.

Requests also revealed how the royal family were meddling in Government affairs when Prince Charles’s ‘black spider memos’ were released, showing how the heir to the throne was lobbying of ministers on subjects from the Iraq war to alternative therapies.

FOIs have revealed countless other issues that would never have seen the light of day – and critics believe this is now under increasing threat because of Government obfuscation and delays.

OpenDemocracy has carried out an investigation into the secretive Cabinet Office FOI ‘Clearing House’, which is said to offer advice to all Whitehall departments on how to avoid releasing information.

Civil servants are alleged to have ‘watch lists’ of journalists and other persistent FOI Act users, including details about their work. There is also said to be a daily ’round robin’ with details of the request, who sent it and how to deal with it.

A ‘black list’ of journalists believed to contain names of reporters from the majority of newspaper, news website, radio and TV news organisations also exists, it is alleged.

But FOI Act guidance says that requests, which can be made by any member of the public to any public body, should always be ‘applicant blind’ with now checks on who sent them.  

The Clearing House has been accused of blocking the release of documents about the infected blood scandal in December, a scandal where thousands of people received contaminated transfusions. 

Last month the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government told local authorities it was ‘appropriate’ to block the release of information about buildings that still have Grenfell-style cladding.  

There was a decade-long battle to have Prince Charles’ ‘black spider’ letters made public following a Freedom of Information request by the press

OpenDemocracy reporter Jenna Corderoy helped run the Clearing House investigation.

She learned that when she sent a Freedom of Information request to the Attorney General’s Office, staff had written in internal emails: ‘Just flagging that Jenna Corderoy is a journalist,’ and: ‘Once the response is confirmed, I’ll just need [redacted] to sign off on this before it goes out, since Jenna Corderoy is a reporter’.  

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said: ‘A Clearing House function has operated in different forms for the 15 years since the FOI Act came into effect, and a small Cabinet Office team now helps ensure a consistent approach to requests for information.

‘This is especially important for complex FOI requests where we must balance the need to make information available with our legal duty to protect sensitive information and national security.’

He added: ‘This government remains fully committed to its transparency agenda, routinely disclosing information beyond its obligations under the FOI Act, and releasing more proactive publications than ever before.’

Former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, the late Sir Jeremy Heywood – dubbed Sir Cover-Up – claimed in 2016 that the Freedom of Information Act was hampering the smooth running of government.

But his predecessor Lord Kerslake insisted this was wrong – if officials felt a ‘chilling effect’ it was ‘largely in their heads’.

Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) said: ‘In 2016 the government tried to clamp down on freedom of information and they failed, there was a public outcry at the time and the plans were dropped.

‘Now it’s clear they just changed their tactics. The intended outcome is the same.

‘To obstruct and restrict FOI shows the government’s disdain for open and transparent government and basic democratic scrutiny.

‘Journalists from across the media industry are united on this issue, we all want to see FOI fully restored, to restrict FOI is to undermine public interest journalism.’

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