Media relations: Looking back at 15 years under the Freedom of Information Act

The UK Freedom of Information Act (not to be confused with a US law by the same name) came into force 15 years ago and has led to the publication of 7,717 responses from government to freedom of information (FOI) requests. It provides a layer of transparency to government business, and for many journalists and PRs, it is a useful method to uncover new information or substantiate suspicions. The Independent outlines the top nine things that have been unearthed due to FOI requests here.

Last Friday saw the Information Commissioner’s Office order the London Borough of Hackney to release information that it had previously refused to send on following an FOI. The information requested was the council’s ‘if asked’ media lines – these are the prepared answers to questions the media may ask that are not included in the initial statement and are a standard tool of all media relations teams. The council had argued that the release of the information would have a ‘chilling effect’ on officials’ ability to be candid and frank on policy issues. It also noted that the resource taken to deal with the request would be too onerous.

This raises questions from a communications perspective:

  • How can communications teams manage with the constant potential of anything they draft could be subject to an FOI?

  • Will more documents in future be marked as legally privileged or commercially confidential/market sensitive to avoid this risk?

The news from Hackney is timely given the new government commission which is looking into the function and future of FOIs. The balance between the public interest in the information and the need for secrecy to remain around sensitive information is being tested. The balance is becoming harder to judge and knowing where the line has been crossed is an increasingly difficult task. The cross-party committee that is looking into the Act will address the policy formation exemption – where options are still being discussed or where there have splits between those involved or frank exchanges of views. But what is not unlikely to address is the status of supporting documents such as ‘if asked’ lines.

‘If asked’ lines are especially interesting to journalists as they are usually more revealing than the actual responses, setting out an organisation’s fears about how its message might be (mis)interpreted. Some argue it is in the public interest to have all the information in the public domain. But what might be the impact of this? Ill-prepared government officials unable to provide sensible responses? Accidentally saying something they should not (perhaps for legal reasons)? Playing safe by reverting to ‘no-comment’?

It is a complex issue, but FOI requests for media ‘if asked’ lines could actually be a backwards step for transparency. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

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