Two thoughts. First, why was it necessary?
Ward-by-ward crime figures are the sort of public data that should be routinely available to the public. There is nothing remotely sensitive about this information, which is inevitably collected by police and is in the public interest to disclose. In an ideal democracy, it wouldn’t really be necessary for a journalist to file a Freedom of Information Act request in order to obtain this data. A glace at a web site, or at most a simple call to the Police press officer, should suffice.
We often hear that the object of the FOIA is to instill a culture of openness in the public sector. Let’s hope that Sussex Police take the hint and start handing this data out regularly so that this can just become another routine story for the Argus. If they don’t, may the Argus bombard them with FOI requests every month until they do. And may other regional papers do the same for every other force in the country.
That, after all, is the beauty of FOIA. Robust use of requests by the press for non-frivolous, public-interest information helps to achieve Parliament’s intent to create a more open government. Responding to requests from journalists is not, as Lord Falconer keeps suggesting, a giant public subsidy to news organisations’ editorial budgets — it’s the Act working as his Government originally intended.
Of course, if Lord Falconer has his way, the Argus might not get to play its role in this. Regional newspapers like the Argus *would be hit very hard by his proposed changes to the FOIA fees regime. The proposal to allow public bodies to treat multiple, unrelated requests from an organisation as if it were one request would mean that the *Argus would quickly use up its quarterly quota of requests to the local public bodies it covers, like Brighton & Hove City Council or Sussex Police.
So much for the press doing its part to help the Government achieve its purported aim of engendering a culture of transparency in the public sector.
Second, the Argus investigation was obviously very good journalism, but it also shows how far there is still is to go until newspapers start making full use of the sort of data that could become available under FOIA.
When I read that there was a “full online breakdown” on the Argus web site, I followed the link half-expecting a slick GIS mashup of the data. After all, the much-cited example of a great journalistic mashup, ChicagoCrime.org, is based on plotting routinely-available police data onto a dynamically-generated online map.
No such luck, obviously. Maybe next time. If there is one.