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Journalists find Freedom of Information Act 'useful but frustrating'

Publication date: Apr 24, 2007 12:01:55 PM

In the latest edition of Open Government Journal, researchers from the UCL Constitution Unit report that journalists in the UK, though happy to have freedom of information, find the response and appeal process under the FOIA 2000 frustrating.

The researchers looked at why journalists use the FOIA 2000, how they find the response and appeals processes, and whether they think the FOIA 2000 is ‘succeeding’ against the objectives set out for it.

By analysing articles based on FOI-obtained information in 2005 and by conducting nine interviews with newspaper journalists (both broadsheet and tabloid) during the autumn of 2006, the researchers found that there was significant disappointment with the operation of the Act. Frustrations centred on delays, liberal use of exemptions and long periods of waiting during the internal review and ICO appeal processes. However, there is also an upside - journalists used the Act to good effect when writing investigative stories, particularly articles of a historical nature, articles based on statistical or performance data, and articles for which access to original documents or papers was required.

“The media is the conduit through which most of the public learn about FOI,” said Robert Hazell, director of the Constitution Unit. “Therefore, what they choose to publish is important. Predictably, most information is related to government’s use of taxpayers’ money and policies implemented by government. The problems journalists experience with the administration of the act is not necessarily unique to them – the act is fairly new and still bedding down. It remains to be seen, if and when the proposed new fee regulations are implemented, whether journalists feel the brunt more than others.”

The paper is a preliminary part of the ESRC-funded FOI evaluation study being carried out by the Unit since January 2007. The study will focus on central government implementation of the FOIA 2000. The main objectives of the study are to clarify the aims of FOI, and evaluate whether those have been met through empirical testing of the effects of the act. In addition to media content analysis, methods will include surveys of FOI requesters and of senior managers and officials in central government, analysis of departments’ publication schemes and FOI request disclosure logs.

NOTES TO EDITORS

· The Constitution Unit is a specialist think tank working on the implementation of constitutional reform. It is independent and non-partisan, based in the School of Public Policy at University College London.

· The Unit’s Director can be contacted on 020 7679 4971 (r.hazell@ucl.ac.uk). Press Officer Brian Walker can be contacted on 07802 176347 (Brian@actona.demon.co.uk). The Unit’s Administrator Victoria Spence can be contacted on 020 7679 4977 (v.spence@ucl.ac.uk). The main UCL Press Office can be contacted on 020 7679 7678.

· Featured Publication: Open Government Journal

· For further information on our FOI research, please see http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/foidp/

About UCL

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. In the government’s most recent Research Assessment Exercise, 59 UCL departments achieved top ratings of 5* and 5, indicating research quality of international excellence.

UCL is the fourth-ranked UK university in the 2006 league table of the top 500 world universities produced by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. UCL alumni include Mahatma Gandhi (Laws 1889, Indian political and spiritual leader); Jonathan Dimbleby (Philosophy 1969, writer and television presenter); Junichiro Koizumi (Economics 1969, Prime Minister of Japan); Lord Woolf (Laws 1954, Lord Chief Justice of England & Wales); Alexander Graham Bell (Phonetics 1860s, inventor of the telephone), and members of the band Coldplay.