09 November 2006

How the FOI can help you dig out stories

There is a fund of exclusive stories waiting to be unearthed by intrepid reporters who know how to use the Freedom of Information Act, students were told.

Journalist Heather Brooke, one of the leading authorities on the use of the Act, said journalists in the UK had a wealth of material, which in the past would have been kept secret, which could be sifted for nuggets of important information.

Heather Brooke

Heather, author of a key guide to using the act, Your Right to Know, contrasted the situation in the US, where politicians expected such things as their expenses claims to be in the public domain, with the traditionally more secretive attitude in the UK.

“Politicians in the US know journalists can inspect this information, so they tend to be very careful,” she said.
“But in the UK politicians have presumed this information would be secret. They are not expecting the glare of the public eye on their expenses claims. It is virgin territory for journalists and you won’t be disappointed.”

Heather was giving the latest in a series of guest lectures organised by the Journalism Studies Department at Sheffield University.
She told a packed lecture hall that the best way to learn how the Act works is by actually using it, and she encouraged students to make requests for information to public bodies, such as central and local government and the police that are covered by the legislation.
She emphasised the importance of framing the original request in a way to make it difficult for secrecy-loving bureaucrats to wriggle out of releasing the information, and pointed out that under Section 16 of the Act public bodies have a duty to “advise and assist” you to make your request and get in answered.

She also touched on recent moves – conducted in secret! – by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, designed at restricting the Act on the grounds of cost.

A new edition of Your Right to Know has recently been published and Heather also recommended her website www.yrtk.org and www.foia.blogspot.com for the latest information on FOI requests.

The next guest lecture is by Ian Mayes, Readers’ Editor of The Guardian on November 28.