Phil Parry emphasises the importance of the Freedom of Information Act.
Amid all the fuss about the poor state of the media in Wales and the audit by the Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA), one thing has been overlooked.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
This has a huge relevance for journalists working in Wales, perhaps more than in most areas of the UK, where a devolved institution needs proper scrutiny. The act allows members of the public to gain information about a whole range of bodies, but is under threat as never before.
Former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who introduced it has already said it was one of the worst mistake he made in politics. He said he was: “An irresponsible nincompoop… I quake at the imbecility of it.”
The act is perceived as being abused by people who lodge bizarre requests with local authorities about the cost of protection against dragon attacks, and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) about their efforts to combat paranormal activity. The Cabinet Office have had to deal with a request about information on zombie attacks.
There is no doubt that abuse of the system does take place, but the cost of dealing with these ridiculous requests, in the context of the wider issue at stake, is minimal. Britain’s system is among the cheapest in the world, and a Parliamentary committee found that frivolous requests constitute “only a very small problem”.
But a Westminster Government report is due next year and likely to recommend changes. A call for evidence has just closed.
The FOIA could be curtailed – the five members of the commission writing the report are not renowned as stout defenders of press freedom.
Last month the Leader of the House, Chris Grayling accused the press of using the act to (heaven forbid) “generate stories”. Three weeks ago the Westminster Government suggested removing universities from the FOIA. There was deep unease in Government circles when The Guardian newspaper finally won its battle in March to secure access to Prince Charles’s letters to ministers.
The Royal letters ranged from the worthy (complaints about soldiers lack of kit) to the plain barmy (a plea to save the Patagonian Toothfish).
But they all represent a huge constitutional issue when an unelected heir to the throne interferes in the democratic process. Furthermore the act is already incredibly restrictive.
Questions about the Royal family are not allowed, and unless you pose your query in very precise terms the public body can wriggle out of it, using one of the myriad of exemptions. Answers must be given in 20 working days, but that is a very long time for a working journalist who wants to get the information out straight away.
Even so the act has allowed us on The Eye to secure information about the bizarre past events at Swansea School of Management, the spiralling cost of ‘Pontio’ arts centre in Bangor, as well as on a host of other stories. Breaches in data collection have been uncovered using the FOIA, revealed the number of criminals who are on the run and shown the state of our nuclear power stations.
Shining a light on the workings of Government in Wales and other public bodies, is crucial.
Information is not to be feared – only those that try to control it.