Yesterday’s Guardian had a fascinating story about the EU’s decision to release all of its data about the beneficiaries of its farming subsidies.
David Hencke’s article shows how the rare cooperation of local journalists in many EU countries in a sophisticated research project based on Freedom of Information requests and computer-assisted reporting techniques led to this important development in openness at the EU level.
Danish CAR specialist Nils Mulvad was one of the first to probe this story, using the Danish FOI law to obtain CAP data for his country. Journalists from many oher countries later joined forces to establish the website farmsubsidy.org, which collects stories about CAP disclosures across the EU into a searchable database.
The site was modelled on a similar effort in the United States where the Environmental Working Group has maintained a searchable database of Federal farm subsidies since the Washington Post first forced their disclosure through an FOI case in 1996.
But what Hencke’s story also reveals is that when it suits government policy to release formerly secret data, it can be eager to do so. When the CAP subsidies were released last year, the government argued in favour of disclosure against the farming lobby. I recall being very surprised by Defra’s eagerness to respond to the FOI request by the Guardian.
Hencke’s story reveals the important role that Jack Thurston, a former special advisor to agriculture minister Nick Brown, had in having the CAP figures for England and Wales released without a fight.
As minister, Brown had become aware of the fact that the largest CAP recipients in Britain included major corporations and the royal family. The Data Protection Act appeared to bar him from disclosing this, however.
Thurston later joined the Foreign Policy Centre think tank, where he wrote a pamphlet calling for disclosure of CAP subsidies. When Freedom of Information Act came into force in 2005, Thurston knew exactly what to ask for:
While the Guardian was publicly demanding the information, Thurston was using his Labour connections to press Margaret Beckett, then agriculture secretary, and Larry Whitty, the farms minister, and advisers to Gordon Brown, to concede. The government agreed and Britain became the first big member of the EU to release the information.
This long-fought campaign was certainly a great success for European journalism — and those European governments seeking farm subsidy reform at the EU level. It shows how freedom of information does not always have to be an adversarial game between a government and its citizens. Sometimes governments can be persuaded of seeing openness as being useful for improving policy.
(In any event, for helping to spread CAR techniques — and showing genuine political successes with it — Mulvad and his new business partner in Denmark, Tommy Kaas, should go on that growing list of new role models for journalism students.)