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Six pre-request FOI questions for journalists

David Higgerson, head of multimedia for Trinity Mirror Regionals, regularly blogs about Freedom of Information requests, from best practice advice to what he’s learned thanks to FOI requests each week.

In his latest post he warns that there is a danger that journalists may “default to FOI” too often, which can have an impact on the quality of the results they get. In order to get the best responses he suggests posing a series of questions to yourself before requesting the information. In summary they are:

  1. Is this information available elsewhere?
  2. Will they release the information to me without going through FOI?
  3. Is there another way of getting this information?
  4. Do I need to think about jargon in my FOI request?
  5. Are there examples of the information being released elsewhere?
  6. What reasons for refusal could a public body come up with?

Read his post in full for detailed advice…

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David Higgerson: Tell your readers about failed FOI requests

A blog post by David Higgerson, head of multimedia for Trinity Mirror Regionals, this week addresses the issue of FOI request refusals and what he thinks journalists should do if they hit a brick wall in their attempts to get information.

He argues that it is important for journalists to not only try to get the information for their readers, but to inform their audience of their endeavours if the material itself cannot be released or reported.

Some see journalistic use of FOI as reporters just finding ‘easy leads’. But if reporters and journalists are working on behalf of their readers, then surely it makes sense to tell readers when they can’t report information

See his full post here…

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Local council says it will start charging for FOI requests

A local council in Chester has announced it will start charging for freedom of information requests, claiming the service is currently being misused and manipulated.

According to a press release from Cheshire West and Chester council, it is being inundated with “ridiculous” requests for information which involves “copious detail”, much of it an unnecessary cost to the taxpayer, it adds.

As a result, the council’s Executive has now unanimously agreed a new charging policy for FOI requests. In the release it says it hopes this will enable it to “claw back some of the expense”.

But this tactic has been criticised by head of multimedia for Trinity Mirror Regionals David Higgerson, on his blog, after asking his own questions about the rules of FOI requests.

Councils can’t just charge for FOI requests. If it costs less than £450 in staff time to collate the information, then you can’t refuse to provide it on grounds of costs. Nor can you charge for that time.

In his post Higgerson offers his own recommendations for how the council could save money on answering FOI requests by improving the service. In summary they are:

  • Improve the council’s FOI page.
  • Carry a released information page.
  • Publish more information by default.
  • Re-read the FOI Act and use exemptions more often.
  • Talk to the requesters.
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Ed Walker: Council documents tell stories too, not just FOI requests

July 12th, 2010 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Local media

Ed Walker looks at the different types of papers and reports released by councils in the UK and how these can lead to news stories. This is a detailed post with advice on how to organise your research and newsgathering, and when to use Freedom of Information requests to deliver more information.

Full post on Ed Walker’s blog at this link…

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NYT: What would Daniel Ellsberg have done with Pentagon Papers if Wikileaks had existed?

April 19th, 2010 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick

Now that it is relatively simple for anyone in possession of leaked documents to publish them directly to the internet, is there any reason to pass them on to a national newspaper?

With the viral advantages of internet publishing and social networking, can dedicated sites such as Wikileaks – which made a huge impact two weeks ago with the release of a classified military video showing the killing of civilians in Baghdad by a United States Apache Gunship – replace mainstream news organisations as the place to take leaked information?

Noam Cohen of the New York Times casts an eye back at the case of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, and asks how it might unravel differently today.

[I]f someone today had the Pentagon Papers, or the modern equivalent, would he still go to the press, as Daniel Ellsberg did nearly 40 years ago and wait for the documents to be analysed and published? Or would that person simply post them online immediately?

Full story at this link…

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FleetStreetBlues: Getting the most out of FoI requests

January 6th, 2010 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Editors' pick, Journalism, Legal

FleetStreetBlues offers some very useful tips for getting started and getting the most out of the Freedom of Information (FoI) act for stories – with some handy links to further resources too.

Full post at this link…

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Guardian.co.uk: FoI requests cost BBC £3m

September 7th, 2009 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Editors' pick, Press freedom and ethics

Some interesting stats obtained by the Guardian’s own Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the corporation:

  • Complying with requests made under the FOI act, since its introduction in 2005, have cost the BBC £3 million;
  • FOI requests have risen from 971 in the first year of the act to 1,141 for up to the end of July this year.

Full story at this link…

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UK Freedom of Information Blog: FOIA act extended, but changes ‘disappointingly modest’

Catching up from news last week that the UK government has plans to extend the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to cover four new bodies: the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the Financial Services Ombudsman, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) and Academy schools.

The UK’s Campaign for FOI has described the proposals as narrow in scope – for example, contractors providing a service on behalf of a public agency will be covered, but only if that service ‘is a function of the authority’.

Full post at this link…

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Guardian tribunal decision is ‘outrageous’, says FOI campaigner

June 15th, 2009 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Journalism, Press freedom and ethics

The Guardian has had its four-year campaign for the release of information about misbehaving members of the judiciary rejected by a Freedom of Information (FOI) tribunal.

The paper had been working on the request since 2005, reporter Rob Evans told Journalism.co.uk in March, and was challenging ‘secret justice’ and asking for a more accountable judiciary.

“We are trying to create a precedent for this kind of information to be released. In the past the government has always kept it as a kind of secret. They have always been very reluctant to release information about naughty judges,” said Evans as the case went to tribunal.

But today the tribunal, led by David Marks QC, ruled in favour of Justice Secretary Jack Straw and suggested that releasing information on when judges, magistrates and coroners had been disciplined could be disruptive to courts and the legal process.

The tribunal was ‘”impressed” by the Ministry of Justice’s argument that judges were entitled to a “reasonable expectation of privacy”‘, according to a report in the Guardian.

“This is an outrageous decision. Judges are highly paid public servants whose conduct in court and, to an extent, out of court must be above reproach,” Evans told Journalism.co.uk today.

“It is fundamental that the public should know how complaints against judges are resolved and the reasons why particular judges have been reprimanded or sacked. Why is Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, covering this information up? He seems to have learnt nothing from the MPs expenses’ debacle.”

The ministry has said it will be more open about the sacking of judges in the future as a result of the Guardian’s campaign. However, taking the full FOI request any further would entail high court action – an expensive procedure.

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Press Gazette: UK government to cut 30-year rule on records

Official documents, apart from ‘sensitive information’, Royal Family and Cabinet papers, could be released after 20 years instead of 30 under new government proposals, Gordon Brown announced yesterday.

The government is also looking at extending the remit of the Freedom of Information (FoI) act to cover organisations that spend public money.

The measures will aim to improve the transparency of the UK parliament following the expenses scandal.

The official publication of the MPs expenses data by parliament will happen in the next few days, Brown added.

Full story at this link…

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