Gray’s Inn, London
Speech by Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs
Lord Falconer of Thoroton
Good evening. For me, it is the greatest honour to be giving this Lord Williams lecture in memory of a truly remarkable man. So thank you Patrick (Harrington QC) and all at Farrar’s Building, Veena and Imogen for allowing me to do so: I will try tonight – though I’m sure I shall fail – to live up to the honour.
Gareth was a man of exceptional talent and insight. He combined the ability to be the best at whatever he did – the law and politics- with being never quite part of the group in which he excelled. That separation gave him an insight in whatever job he was doing, which always marked him out as the best.
I was fortunate enough to call Gareth Williams a friend. I worked with him. I admired him. A formidable lawyer, a consummate Parliamentarian and an adroit politician – especially so, I think, since he somehow always managed, at one and the same time, to be utterly engaged in politics but somehow above politics – Gareth was a great advocate, popular and respected on all sides of the House of Lords. He was a dedicated husband and father. A great man. I miss him. We all miss him.
As well as being a brilliant Attorney General and one of the most effective Leaders of the Lords Gareth was also, without question, one of the funniest.
A memory of Gareth that stands out for me personally is how he would treat their Lordships as if he were standing in front of a jury – appealing, persuading, convincing: as dismissive of politicking and hectoring as he was unlikely to indulge in it.
Ferociously clever and wickedly funny, he was a joy to listen to, and having spent about 72 uninterrupted hours in the House last week debating Lords reform, then when I say he is missed, believe me - he is sorely missed. Although I am sure he would have been amused by one of the bishops who was overheard expressing his disappointment that in addition to elected and appointed options the Government wasn’t introducing the possibility of a hundred percent anointed House.
My theme this evening is openness– a subject of which I know he would have approved. Gareth was a passionate believer in the freedom of the individual, in access to justice, in removing the secrecy around how decisions are made on our behalves. But as a lawyer, as a politician, and as a Parliamentarian, he was cautious, and careful too: he believed in effectiveness as well as openness, and it is precisely on that balance I wish to talk tonight.
What I want to argue tonight is:
In other words, my argument tonight is the case for what we have always said in relation to freedom of information: that good government is open government, but that good government is effective government too.
That is the right balance: it was always the balance at the heart of the Freedom of Information Act, and remains so both in relation to the FoI legislation and in relation to the other issues of openness for which my department, the Department for Constitutional Affairs, has principal policy responsibility in Whitehall.
Firstly, openness as a principle. Before 1997, governments were not nearly open enough. The culture was one of non-disclosure, that there was the expectation and an acceptance that governments in this country should govern, but not govern openly.
Other countries, of course, thought differently, operated differently and as a result acted differently.
Openness for many other countries when this government came to power in 1997 was a reality, not an aspiration – and in very many places a long-standing reality at that.
We recognised that the way of doing government based on non-disclosure, based on a well-know-best attitude to administration was no longer acceptable in terms of good government nor compatible with a political philosophy that looked to rebalance the relationship between the citizen and the state. So we brought into legislation a full statutory right to know.
The aphorism goes that freedom of information is what oppositions talk about, and then forget when they are in power. Good for a Yes, Minister joke, I agree.
But despite the best efforts of some this government did not fit it. Instead of forgetting about legislation when we came into office, we introduced just that legislation when we did come into office. We were and remain committed to it, and to making it work. That has not changed, and it will not change.
The bedrock of any genuine freedom of information act throughout the world is the same. A presumption of openness but equally a recognition that certain material should be kept confidential, for example an individual’s medical records, the names of informers. Equally, a vital component of an FoI Act independent resolution of where the balance lies with a legally enforceable right to the information.
And that is what we have introduced.
Our Freedom of Information Act is one of the greatest reforms for which this government will rightly be remembered. This government has opened up Whitehall and beyond in ways unimagined, unattempted and unrealised by any previous government in the UK. Freedom of information is a ratchet reform: a reform which not only must not but I do not think could be turned back.
Openness improves standards. Secrecy hides dishonesty and incompetence. Without openness, for example, the number of books bought by your child’s school might remain hidden, and very low as a result. Without openness there may be no incentive for a hospital to improve its hygiene standards. If government is institutionally secret, and never reveals its inner workings, the public can never properly judge. They can not effectively hold public authorities to account.
For this the Act should be celebrated. And I can tell you from within Government, it changes and significantly improves decision making.
Which brings me to my second point. Openness must be for a purpose. Openness is not, I want to argue tonight, an absolute, a good in itself. Openness is a good where openness is of benefit: crucially, of benefit to the public governments are here to serve.
People do want to know what governments do in their name: they do want open government. But people also elect governments precisely to do things in their name: they want effective government as well. That is both the balance we need to strike on openness, and its test too. Does openness help? Does openness benefit? Does openness deliver?
We need to have these questions constantly before us, and constantly to measure openness against them.
So if openness on everything including the names of informers or spies means nobody will ever inform and that is no good for government.
To raise these points is not a limitation on freedom of information, or an attack on press freedom. It is a necessity to make freedom of information work at all.
Freedom of information can not be a free for all. Freedom of information must be freedom for a purpose.
My third point is what the purpose of openness then actually is. The overriding answer is clear: that openness must be for the benefit of the public. If openness is a means, rather than an end, then it is a means by which we can deliver more and better information for the public, a means by which we can bring about better government, and a means by which we can improve the relationship between the citizen and the state, the citizen can judge better whether the state is doing well for them. The purpose of openness is to give the public a greater stake in how they are governed and to improve how decisions are made on their behalves. Openness promotes good government; good government promotes openness.
Openness is not so simple or neat a concept as it would appear. Governments and public authorities have a duty to protect the public; to ensure that their interests and their rights are protected – whether that is a right to privacy or protection from identity theft or fraud. The Act and the public recognise that some exemptions must apply.
This is not about prolonging or permeating or returning to a culture of secrecy. Rather it is finding the balance between openness and privacy, by establishing what is in the public interest.
Unfettered, unregulated access to information does not bring about good government. Nor is it in the public interest.
The more we open up government the higher its standards. More than 110,000 public authorities are covered by the Act, an Act that covers all information, no matter how old. Since it came into force on the 1st January 2005 central government has received 72,000 “non routine” information requests.
Among them: operation success rates at local hospitals; violent crime figures for railway stations; the state of many local restaurants or school kitchens from safety inspection records; hospital MRSA rates.
The vast majority of requests have been for key information about important issues, and as these examples illustrate, in particular local issues. Issues that have a real impact on people’s lives.
Freedom of information also puts a statutory duty on public bodies to publish information as a matter of routine, for instance a huge range of performance figures for Government departments and local authorities are now routinely released as a result. Helping to create, over time, that all important culture of openness which will be of real benefit to the public.
With a culture of openness in government, with direct access to information, will come better government and greater confidence. By seeing the factual basis on which decisions are made, the citizen can hold the public authority more fully to account. Giving people the power of information is central to the aim of connecting the citizen with the people entrusted to take decisions on their behalf.
Fourthly, setting the limits. Openness is only of benefit when it is the public interest to be open. Take these questions. Who would want their medical records publicly available to all and sundry? Who would want their educational or employment history to be available for anyone to access ? Their finances, their bank details? The answers to these and similar questions are clear. They are obvious. People rightly know that in their everyday lives there are limits – real limits, appropriate limits – to information. We, as a government, need to steer by the limits which people naturally and rightly want to set for themselves.
The limits set by that purpose are not limits which are best defined by the providers – either the provider of the information, such as Whitehall and the 100,000 other public authorities, or the principal providers to the public of information, the media, whether commercial or otherwise – but by the third party mechanisms best suited to this job: the courts, the tribunals, the judiciary, the law. Defining those limits is not a job best done by the politicians, or by the press – but by the law of the land.
This is an important principle. Ultimately it is not down to practitioners, politicians, the public, nor the press to determine public interest. There are independent parties whose responsibility it is to be the final arbiter. If there is a dispute regarding access to information that has been denied – there is a statutory right of appeal under the Act to an independent regulator.
Members of the public have the right of appeal to the Information Commissioner, and if they are not satisfied with his decisions, to the Information Tribunal.
The independent regulator, the tribunal, the court, the judges, the law: these are the right mechanisms to set the limits, and to define the public interest. Openness needs to be tested and determined in this way, not in what politicians want or in what the press wants.
I have set out the principles. Could I consider how that set of arguments is currently being applied in practice?
Let me take a range of measures which my own department is considering which give real and practical effect to the key question of striking the balance in openness – measures in relation to the courts in general, to family courts in particular, to coroners’ courts, to data sharing and finally to freedom of information itself.
In each and every one of these, the approach is the same. Openness for a purpose: the benefit of the public. Good government is open government. But good government is effective government too. We need in every case to strike the right balance – whether it’s in the courts, over data, or in relation to freedom of information requests.
Let me take first the courts. The courts in three respects: the courts in general, the family court, and the coroner’s court.
In terms of the generality of the courts, we have a free and entirely open court system. The openness of the courts is, classically, openness for a purpose – the purpose of good justice. Justice, as Lord Hewart so memorably said, should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done. In operating in this way, the courts determine the balance.
But that balance is not a balance of equivalence. It is a balance of priorities. Important though justice being seen to be done undoubtedly is, it is inevitably and correctly a second order issue to justice actually being done.
Where justice being done is in any way impaired, or even at risk of being impaired, by justice being done in public, then the one takes precedence over the other. There are That is the purpose of firstly, either some courts being closed to the press or the public; Secondly, that is the purpose of properly constituted and properly applied reporting restrictions.
The process and outcomes of justice, on behalf of the public, need the aggregated assent of the public – an assent both enacted and demonstrated by the business of the courts in the main being carried out in public, for the public. But where the process and outcomes of justice would be worsened, rather than bettered, by being carried out in public, then the public interest rightly demands that they should not be.
That is a fundamental principle of law in this country. It is the argument we as a government advanced, for instance, in our consultation proposals on broadcasting in the courts. We set out the case in those proposals for justice being seen to be done through the medium – broadcasting, and especially television – which most widely and most universally now provides for people seeing beyond their own immediate concerns and interests: the window on the world for us all.
But equally we set out the case, too, for ensuring that, especially with a medium as powerful as broadcasting and most particularly with television that justice would not be damaged by broadcasting.
We need to consider the position of the victims and witnesses. In allowing television access to courts, will this either add unnecessarily to their distress, or separately, will knowledge that there are TV cameras in the court room potentially make people less likely to give evidence. Open justice may lead to the removal of justice, in these circumstances. This is the balance that we must strike.
We are still considering the issues raised in this area, and I personally am in favour of moving forward in the precise ways we have delineated and described. So judges being televised, yes, for example in sentencing remarks; victims and witnesses, no. But whatever are our conclusions, we will steer by that central principle, that central balance of openness, that is openness for a purpose.
As with the courts in general, so too with the family courts in particular. We shall, relatively soon, set out for the first time a general vision for the future of the family courts. In advance of that, we are consulting on the idea of improving openness in the family courts. Again, openness for a purpose, and for the same purpose: for the benefit of the public - the benefit here being a greater degree of knowledge of the operation of the family courts, especially in relation to cases of family breakdown, and in particular to cases of family breakdown involving children.
I am publishing tomorrow the responses we have received to the proposals we put out for consultation.
Proposals which sought to strike the right balance between the privacy which such often sensitive and delicate cases rightly require, and the need for the outcomes of such cases to command the respect, agreement and approval not just of the parties concerned, but of the community and society more broadly. The need, specifically, to strike the right balance between confidence and confidentiality.
I don’t want, tonight, to pre-empt tomorrow’s publication. But I would like to point up the views of some of the respondents on the contentious issue of whether or not the media should be able to attend family courts as of right. The submission from the Newspaper Society summarises the position of many of the media organisations that took part:
“We fully support the proposal that the media should be allowed to attend ALL family courts as of right…The principle of a general presumption of openness must be established if public confidence and accountability is to be achieved. The role of the media as representative of the public particularly in relation to attendance at court proceedings is well established and understood”.
Over the course of the consultation well over 200 children gave their views, some of whom had been involved in care proceedings. Overwhelmingly they rejected the idea – with the clear support of key third-party organisations speaking up for the interests of children. They are clear – crystal clear – that they do not want the family court filled with people who have no involvement in proceedings.
They do not want people in the court hearing private details of their lives. They are worried about themselves or their families being identified by people whom they do not trust to report responsibly.
Take this summary of those views, from the National Children’s Bureau:
“(We have) concerns about the assumption that the media will work on behalf, and for the benefit, of the public alone. Allowing the media access to family courts proceedings would give the public greater awareness of the complexities involved in making difficult decisions about a child’s care and welfare. However, the media also inevitably has a function to find news that will increase readership and sell newspapers and magazines. Any plans for opening up the courts must address this conflict of interest to ensure that the courts are open to scrutiny in a manner which keeps the child’s welfare and protection paramount.”
In this as in similar examples, the press would claim that limiting their access will mean that miscarriages of justice could go unrecognised and unreported – and that government seeking to restrict them would put justice at risk. They would argue that they act as a proxy for the public. Our job in government now is to strike the right balance between these views.
There are concerns about a lack of openness yet we know we have a requirement to maintain confidentiality. We will not tomorrow yet be announcing a way forward following the responses to our consultation.
That step is still to come, and I hope it will be able to come soon. But the arguments are clear.
We need to ensure that people know more about what goes on in the court room; for example, the reasons conclusions are reached by the court. We also need to be clear that families and children know what they rightly regard as private information, rightly remains private. That may well involve allowing the press or the public in only where the judge expressly agrees as an exception.
Similarly in the coroners’ courts. Currently coroners sit in open court and the press can report any details of the inquest they choose. The only exceptions that currently apply are when issues of national security arise.
However, there is a strong view among a wide range of stakeholders that the reporting of inquests, often involving tragic deaths, or suicides can increase unnecessarily the suffering and distress of the families involved.
The Government’s draft Coroners Reform Bill, which we have consulted on widely, therefore proposes that the coroner should be able, in certain cases like child deaths and suicides, to impose certain restrictions on what can be reported, namely anonymity.
This is not some assault on the public’s right to know – this is a pragmatic proposal in order to protect families from unnecessary suffering. This is representing a wider public interest than the interests of the media.
It is important that the public are able to learn from these tragic incidents when they occur, and it is important for public confidence that coroners’ decisions are transparent. We have developed the draft Bill on the expectation that coroners inquests should remain open – but that anonymity should be respected should the case and the coroner dictate it. I emphasise the decision on privacy is taken not by the press or by the applicant, but by the coroner.
The press can still act in the public interest. Cases such as the twins left alone to play who pulled a wardrobe down on themselves – or other deaths that have occurred when children have climbed into washing machines – are clearly important for other parents to know about; for people to understand the risks. But do the media really need to print names of the children involved?
Do they need to subject the family to further distress? Is that really in the public interest? Ultimately it should not be for the media to decide – but the coroner in the first instance.
Moving from the courts, the second main area I want now to look at is data sharing and data protection, where the importance of balancing competing needs is perhaps the clearest.
Good government determines that public authorities are able, where appropriate and legitimate, to share information that they hold on individuals. For instance sharing criminal records between the police and schools (as tragically did not occur in the Soham case), to ensure that children are not put at risk from those who work in schools. We must be willing to share information where it is in the public interest to do so.
We will, I believe, be better able to persuade people of the need for data sharing in the right case if the citizen is confident that suitable safeguards exist to prevent information held about an individual being used
Inappropriately. And that there are protections against unwarranted and illegitimate intrusions into private lives.
When we introduced the Data Protection Act in 1998 we improved the statutory protection offered to the public. We put positive obligations on and set provisions for data controllers to protect and safeguard personal information.
But that is simply not enough.
Journalists and other commercial organisations regularly attempt to get access to addresses, phone-call records and bank account statements. Sometimes in the name of investigative journalism – sometimes in the name of the public interest. Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner in his report “What price privacy” describes a “pervasive and widespread industry devoted to the illegal buying and selling of such information”.
The 1998 Data Protection Act makes it an offence to “obtain, disclose or procure disclosure of personal information knowingly or recklessly without consent”. But clearly the threat of a fine is not a sufficient disincentive.
We have a duty to respond robustly to the Information Commissioner’s concerns – we have a duty to the public to do so.
When data offences come before the courts they often result in a derisory fine. We are now looking for the first opportunity to legislate to allow for stronger sentences.
Journalists of course will claim that they are acting in the public interest. But again it is not theirs to decide. The law is clear, and for all the noble sentiment expressed by the media, their methods in this regard are illegal. The sanctions need to increase.
The balance here is very clear. Controllers of data have a positive obligation to safeguard that data, there are also sanctions under the DPA against misuse of that data. Openness versus the right to privacy – the balance must be struck.
However, in the face of gross violations of privacy, in the light of an apparently growing illegal trade in illegal information – our duty is to protect the public. And it is the duty of the media to act with responsibility.
The third main area I wish to look at is freedom of information itself.
FOI was introduced fundamentally to alter the relationship between citizen and the state - to break down the cultural and institutional barriers that had historically put the public on the outside. A modern liberal democracy is grounded on much more than the intermittent right to vote. It is must also be based on increased participation by the public in the process of government.
Enabling the public to see how and why decisions impacting on them were made is crucial in improving this relationship.
Having given some time for the legislation to settle down we have been consulting on changes not to the Freedom of Information Act itself, but to the fees regime which supports it. That consultation closed on March 8th, and we are currently considering our response.
The changes we have put forward for consultation will neither undermine the principle of openness nor stop legitimate requests.
We make no charge providing information under the Act. Nor will we in the future. It remains essential that the public should not be priced out of accessing what it is their right to know. Currently where costs would exceed £600 to comply with a request to central government, that request can be refused. Currently we cannot include time taken to read through files or consult others who have an important interest.
It is regarded as reasonable by all that some cash limit be imposed or FOI could be used to tie up officials all day on research for FoI requestors.
Having seen the Act work in practice for over a year, we are consulting on whether it is right to include reading, consideration and consultation time in the £600.
Where the requestor, for example, asks that all material on a particular topic be disclosed, much reading time is required. The requestor is very often fishing to see if anything interesting turns up.
Close to a half – 45 per cent, in fact - of time spent on FOI casework is accounted for by just 5 per cent of requests.
Under the new proposals, consideration time can be included. We also propose to aggregate requests from one person within a 60 day period to determine whether the £600 limit is exceeded. That is to deal with the mass of requests designed soemtimes to get round the limit. If they are genuinely different then aggregation should not apply.
When we introduced the FOI legislation it was roundly criticised by the media as insufficient.
When we implemented the legislation we were told by the media it would not be enough to crack open the culture of secrecy in Whitehall. And after it had been working for some time, we were told by the media that it was all but a toothless tiger.
Happily, the effect of introducing the proposals we are now considering has transformed the media’s attitude. The Daily Mail said it was the “only bright spot for Britain’s media”, and indeed as “a monument to a more open society”, while the Telegraph described it as the “one piece of legislation that any newspaper could not but welcome”. The Times said FOI has “vastly improved local lives” and The Guardian that the legislation is “working to the benefit of citizens”.
I am genuinely delighted that castigating critics now are profound friends of the legislation. But perhaps their new-found passion for FOI would carry a touch more credibility if their defence of it were motivated by more than self interest.
There are three particular issues that I would like to deal with here.
Firstly; the nature of many media FOI requests. I read an obituary of freedom of information in one national newspaper a couple of weeks ago, responding to our fees consultation. I n it a disgruntled journalist was bemoaning FOI as “a Blair-ite con trick” for what he saw as evasiveness on behalf of government in not having responded to his request that could, he said, “have made a nice diary item”.
Open ended requests – of the “give me everything you have on a certain issue since 1997” variety, or where journalists put in numerous requests just to see if anything interesting comes out are not what the Act was designed to do.
Indeed, many of the open-ended requests are so ill defined or general that they cannot be answered within the appropriate financial limits in any case.
The Act rightly imposes an obligation on the public authority to assist the requestors in properly forming the request so that they can access the information they need.
We will of course continue to strive to deliver the best possible service to those requesting information.
But measured, targeted, informed requests – rather than fishing expeditions for whole swathes of information – are far more likely to achieve success in terms of the system itself. Both requester and public authority have an interest in maintaining the quality of the FOI process itself which we are seeking to defend. Better quality information would be available and delivered to a better time-frame.
My concern is that the needs of those less expert, less confident and less familiar are being put in jeopardy by the requests by those who should do better, could do better and used to do better.
Secondly; exclusivity of information. On the one hand supportive of freedom of information, with journalists making extensive use of the act, but on the other the press has argued against the idea that information they receive is simultaneously released on departmental websites because it spoils, as they would say, a good scoop.
Where government discloses information it is right that it is available and accessible on websites for everyone. It should not be for the media’s own commercial interest, and it should not be for them to decide if it reaches the public.
It is undoubtedly in the interest of the press that officials spend time trawling through files, just in case there are things which might be of interest, only for the press to decide if and when to publish it.
That is not in the public interest. That is not good government. That wastes public resources.
Thirdly, in painting an unfair picture of an over-secretive government. Journalists should ease back on the apocalyptic talk. “Stop this assault on the right to know” railed The Mail in response to our fees consultation. “Your right to know – and how the state is trying to stop you” – in the Times. Or this from the Independent – “a good 50% of the blame for FOI’s toothlessness lies in the dishonest, or at the very least deliberately evasive tactics public authorities adopt in order to prevent it causing them embarrassment”.
To seek to improve our payment arrangements whilst continuing to ensure requestors are not charged is not to change the FOI regime. The press should not suggest it is.
We must be able to prioritise legitimate requests - public and press interests do not always ally.
Always a central controversy in FOI is where to strike the balance between the public’s right to know and legitimate retention in order to promote good government in the public interest.
It does not promote good government to disclose material for example that shows what a foreign government is saying to the UK government in confidence.
If it is published, that will, thereafter, make foreign governments less willing to confide in us. Nor does it promote good government to publish details of ongoing internal policy discussions where people express their views and give their advice on the basis that it is confidential. Governments of all political stripes need the space to govern. Where that space is to be given – that is for the independent arbitrator to decide, not the politicians or the press..
I do not believe that there need be significant differences on these issues between the Government the media. We are, as ministers, in discussion now – constructive discussion – with a range of media organisations, who as well as telling us, as usual, what to do from the redoubt of their leader columns, are, unusually, trying to act as others do and seeking to impact upon policy through constructive consultation.
I welcome that shift.
But lying behind that is what may well be a fundamental difference of view. The Government approaches openness on the basis of improving how government operates, for the benefit of the public. Many sections of the press do not approach it in that way. Instead, many approach it on the basis of what gives them most information exclusive to their outlet.
But openness is not a quality which should be used by either the media or the state purely for their own sectional interests. I do not believe that the Government takes this stance.
A broadsheet editor recently described the Freedom of Information Act as “one of the best things that this Government has done for journalism.” This seems to me a fundamental misconception. A misconception about the legislation. And a misconception about the Government’s intentions in bringing forward the legislation.
The Government did not introduce freedom of information in order to do something “for journalism”. We did it for the public.
The job of the Government is not to provide page leads for the papers, but information for the citizen. Freedom of information was never considered to be, and for our part will never be considered to be, a research arm for the media.
Journalists account for about 16 per cent of the total costs of central government FOI requests – at a cost of around £4million. Our recent study into the economic impact of FOI has revealed that since the act came into force we have subsidised BBC research to the tune of about £1million a year.
The Act allows for each initial FOI request to take up to three and a half days of a public servant’s time to process. Three and a half days per request.
Many of these requests are entirely legitimate. The media clearly plays a very important role in scrutinising and holding government to account.
And none of the proposed regulations is in any way seeking to target the media or to restrict their freedoms.
But people, not the press, must be the priority. Information itself is the key. Not those whose primary business is to purvey information to others, whether on air, on line or on paper.
Freedom of information provides a right to know, not a right to tell.
Fundamentally, FOI is not for press it is for the people. It needs to be properly used in order to promote good Government. Information needs to be handled responsibly, and I strongly believe that there is a duty of responsibility on behalf of the media as well.
What I would say to journalists, editors and producers is this. Recognise that FOI comes at a cost to other public services. Work with public authorities to produce requests that are precise and targeted – which will result in the release of information of benefit to the public. We have a duty under the Act to help people craft their requests as best as is possible.
Many FOI stories fall into that public benefit category. Fishing expeditions for diary items do not. Help us continue the success of Freedom of Information and make it work better. Strike a balance which recognises that the interests of the press and the sensible operation of FOI may be different.
What I have argued throughout this evening is that Governments have to strike an often complex balance between frequently competing principles.
Openness is critical to good government, but so is ensuring that people are given the protections that they are entitled to and indeed deserve. Openness must be for a purpose, and that purpose must be in the public interest.
It is no use flinging open filing cabinets, the corridors of power, bank, medical, educational, phone records for anyone to access. Open yes. Effective no.
When government seeks to restrict or regulate the information that is accessible – be that through looking at how FOI requests are paid for – or seeking to limit media access to family courts, or introducing stiffer penalties for data protection offences – it is not a rejection of openness. It is not evasiveness or secrecy – it is good government. We have broader competing interests to manage – public protection primary among them.
We need to get away from the position where on the one hand every public official seeking to restrict disclosure is seen as protecting himself from embarrassment or worse – or that every journalist is acting in the interest of a scoop. That both the government and the press must exercise responsibility in relation to openness is clear. It is to the detriment of all if it seen to be a tug of war of self-interest.