Journalists will increasingly have to rely on campaign groups to use the freedom of information act for them as publishers come under financial pressure.
That is the prediction made in a report published today by the Reuters institute for the study of journalism at the university of Oxford, “A shock to the system: journalism, government and the freedom of information act 2000,” written by Jeremy Hayes, an output editor on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight.
He says that although journalists are likely to be the most systematic users of FOIA for the next few years, pressure groups and political parties are increasingly using it to research and generate stories to feed to the media.
“On the evidence of the growing use of FOIA by pressure groups and voluntary organisations, it is not impossible to imagine a future, in an age of reducing newsrooms, in which the predominant use of FOIA for journalistic purposes is via research originating from campaigners,” he writes.
He says that while journalists might be expected to exercise a law that gives the public a “right to know”, they are typically “sceptical” of the value of FOIA research, not least “because of the hours of reporter resources they can consume.” In contrast, campaigning organisations, political parties and single-interest groups are prepared to invest the resources in FOIA inquiries “in the hope of interesting journalists”.
The FOIA Centre has long worked, not only for the media industry, but also for a wide range of campaign groups, extracting information using FOIA and other open-access laws, enabling them to supply stories to the press and broadcasters.
The study says: “These researches have been linked to campaigns, but the importance of publicising them has led organisations to share their discoveries with journalists. Since FOIA has been introduced, the volume of these ‘exclusives’ has noticeably increased.”
Last year, for example, Greenpeace obtained documents showing that the government had attempted to water down or delay a European air-quality directive to avoid creating difficulties for the proposed third runway at Heathrow airport.
Greenpeace offered the documents to a journalist with a strong FOIA reputation who wrote the story for London’s Evening Standard, where it appeared on the front page.
“Essentially, the journalist had been offered a ‘free lunch’, in that none of the time taken to unearth the information had been his. Greenpeace had effect-ively acted as unpaid researchers.”
The taxpayers’ alliance has made use of FOIA to identify examples of wasteful expenditure by public bodies. “The discoveries… have invariably found their way in to the newspapers through an aggressive use of press releases coupled with research findings.”
Its chief executive, Matthew Elliot, said: “We have tried to give news stories to journalists on a plate.” The group uses FOIA to obtain “fresh figures from government and local councils, which we package up into brief, media-friendly research papers, complete with eye-catching headline figures to give reporters a ready-made top line.”
Political parties are also using FOIA to feed stor-ies to the press. FOIA enables them to obtain results that are often more comprehensive, factual and authoritative than answers to parliamentary questions.
In one example, David Howarth, Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge and the party’s justice spokes-man, used FOIA to discredit claims made by a home office minister that 70 police officers had been injured by environmental protestors at the Kingsnorth power station in July 2008.
The response to a FOIA request showed that the police reported only 12 injuries, none of which resulted from contract with protestors. They includ-ed a wasp sting and the effects of the summer heat.
The information was offered to a journalist on The Guardian, which published it as a news story.
The study says: “In an age of cutbacks in news-rooms, the offer of new, original material on a plate is proving very hard to resist.”
One investigative reporter, Paul Lashmar, formerly of The Independent, The Observer, and ITV’s World in Action, told the study: “Journalists are often now so over-stretched that a lot of work that used to be carried out in the newsroom is carried out by groups such as the taxpayers’ alliance.
“What you see now is journalists who are grateful for news that is almost perfectly packaged to go into the paper with a ready top line. In that sense, journalism is becoming very passive.”
The study continues: “Are journalists who feed off exclusives from activists and politicians relinquish-ing the use of FOIA to third parties when they should be asking the questions themselves?
“Plainly, the conflicts of interest which arise from journalists retailing these kinds of ‘scoops’, for which they are not the originators, are not new. Correspondents traditionally rely on inside information from sources who divulge it, often for their own ends.
“Arguably, a story that comes from a political party or pressure group and originates from FOIA research is less immune to being used for ‘spin’ since the facts involved have a documentary basis independent of the source.
“Given the financial pressures that are becoming ever more a feature of British journalism, comment and reactive news reporting are likely to become ever more dominant in terms of coverage, while investigation and pursuit of the inconvenient truth may become ever more specialized.”
The report also examines problems with the way in which “freedom of information” is working in the UK, such as “obstruction” to FOIA requests by public bodies.
It says: “One particularly blatant case concerns efforts by the housing corporation… to ensure that potentially embarrassing information about an IT modernization programme would not be revealed to journalists or other inquirers.”
This was exposed two years ago by the FOIA Centre and Computer Weekly.
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Revealed: strategy to prevent FOIA disclosure
“A shock to the system: journalism, government and the freedom of information act 2000” by Jeremy Hayes for the Reuters institute for the study of journalism.