The Guardian today has a follow-up to Lord Falconer’s plan to publish all infomation released under the Freedom of Information Act on government web sites:
Lord Falconer strongly defended the plan he unveiled in the Guardian this week for any information released to a media outlet to be simultaneously published on official websites.
He said he was “absolutely amazed” by a Guardian leader criticising this practice as tending to increase the reluctance of journalists to spend time ferreting information out of Whitehall. He claimed it amounted to journalists wanting to “keep things secret for their commercial interests”.
I’m absolutely amazed that Falconer doesn’t realise that newspapers commercial interest and the public interest cannot be so easily separated in this case.
The case for simultanious publication is admittedly compelling: the spirit of the law is to encourage government openness rather than to provide a new research tool for investigative journalists. That should be just a nice side effect of the law.
But if journalists are unlikely to benefit from their work, then why would they take the trouble to probe government secrecy in the first place?
To understand what a bad idea Falconer’s policy is, stop imagining a “big greedy corporate news organisation” and think ”independent filmaker“ or ”freelance investigative reporter”, and you quickly understand that it is important that those who do the time-consuming (and therefore costly) background research to execute effective FOIA requests should at the very least get the opportunity to take credit for it.
I’ve got to hand it to the government media strategist who came up with this. By introducing this policy, they have done an excellent job of minimising the impact of journalists’ potential use of the new FOIA. They’ve also forced journalists into very rapidly rethink their approach to the Act. Tactics learned with the American FOIA will clearly not apply here.