1993 Freedom of Information Awards

The contributions of people who have fought for greater openness are recognised by the Campaign for Freedom of Information’s annual Awards, on January 20. This year’s Awards are presented by Michael Grade, Chief Executive of Channel Four Television.

Freedom of Information Awards go to:

  • Joe Whitty, the Governor of Feltham Young Offender Institution, for his outspoken calls for openness about prison deaths
  • Two doctors, who were arrested by the fraud squad for carrying out research which exposed racial bias in the appointment of hospital doctors
  • The John Lewis Partnership, whose in-house magazine encourages staff to write to it anonymously, promoting vigorous and often critical debate
  • Mark Fisher MP, whose freedom of information bill, was debated for a total of 21 hours in the Commons last year
  • Four academics, three of whom were suspended, for publicly criticising poor academic standards on a course at University College Swansea
  • Bill Goodwin, the journalist who risked imprisonment rather than reveal the identity of his source
  • Oxford City Council, for an energetic policy of seeking environmental information from government agencies
  • Caroline Godwin, for her persistent challenging of court secrecy orders
  • Charles Medawar, for persuading the House of Commons to drop a centuries old ban on taking notes in the public gallery
  • To mark the Campaign’s tenth anniversary, a special award goes to Des Wilson – who set up the Campaign in 1984

Joe Whitty

Joe Whitty, the Governor of Feltham Young Offender Institution and Remand Centre, receives an Award for his outspoken calls for openness about prison deaths. Four boys committed suicide at Feltham in the nine months up to March 1992. Mr Whitty was appalled at the difficulty their families had in obtaining information about the deaths. The Home Office did not allow them to see the relevant prison records, and they were not entitled to legal aid to pay for legal representation at the inquests. Mr Whitty put the families in touch with the support group Inquest, provided funds from his own budget to help with the funeral costs, and pressed the Home Office for greater openness and financial assistance for the relatives. At a public meeting in March 1993, Mr Whitty publicly challenged the then Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, over the secrecy and lack of legal aid – insisting there should be no hint of a cover-up. For a civil servant to publicly challenge his secretary of state in this way is an almost unprecedented – and risky – step. His efforts (along with those of Inquest and the Howard League) contributed to the Home Office’s decision in December 1993 to release prison medical and other records to families in future. (Mr Whitty is out of the country: his Award will be accepted for him by Mrs Pauline Waite, the mother of one of the boys who died at Feltham.)

Dr Aneez Esmail and Dr Sam Everington

Award winners Dr Aneez Esmail a senior registrar at St George’s hospital London, and Dr Sam Everington, a London GP, sent pairs of almost identical job applications for a series of hospital posts, one from an applicant with an English name, the other an Asian name. Although both fictional applicants had the same medical experience and qualifications, the English applicants were shortlisted twice as often as the Asian candidates. Before they could finish their research into racial bias in the appointment of doctors the two were arrested by police and charged with making fraudulent job applications. The charges were later dropped, but the doctors were advised not to continue the research. They were also investigated by the General Medical Council for behaviour which “cannot be regarded as acceptable professional conduct” – though this charge was also not upheld. The two doctors’ findings were later published in the British Medical Journal. Their treatment reveals once again the official tendency to punish critics rather than deal with the abuses they uncover.

The John Lewis Partnership

The John Lewis Partnership receives an Award for its weekly in-house magazine, The Gazette, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1993. Unlike conventional staff magazines, The Gazette encourages vigorous debate about – and often criticism of – the Partnership by staff. John Lewis has no external shareholders, and its profits are shared with its staff (‘partners’). The Gazette contains weekly sales figures for each of the group’s stores. It also contains a remarkable correspondence section, typically four pages, in which staff are free to write anonymously and as critically as they like. According to the Partnership: “All anonymous letters must be published unless the Chairman is prepared to certify that such publication would be harmful to the organisation. If he does so decide, the writer can appeal to the Trustees…Refusal to publish is rare”. Letters which require comment must be answered, and nearly all are accompanied by responses from the Partnership’s senior managers. The magazine promotes free and open debate – about both policy and personnel issues – of a kind that most companies go out of their way to prevent.

Mark Fisher MP

Mark Fisher MP’s freedom of information bill attracted substantial all-party support in the House of Commons last session. The Right to Know Bill was debated for a total of 21 hours – the first time a FOI bill has received such detailed attention. An attempt to “talk it out” at second reading was defeated when MPs voted 168 to 2 in support of the bill. The Bill completed its Committee stage but fell when the government tabled a massive number of amendments, which could not be dealt with in the remaining parliamentary time. Mr Fisher, the Labour MP for Stoke on Trent Central, campaigned vigorously and effectively for the measure, addressing numerous public meetings across the country and demonstrated that, left to a free vote, the House of Commons would almost certainly pass a freedom of information act.

Four academics

Four academics who were penalised after publicly complaining about academic standards at University College Swansea receive Awards. Two of them, Michael Cohen and Colwyn Williamson were suspended after making their complaints. A third, Anne Maclean took early retirement having previously been suspended and the fourth, Dr Geoffrey Hunt took another job. The four had complained that MA students in the college’s Centre for Philosophy and Health Care were being awarded degrees for inadequate work and that pressure to recruit as many students as possible had resulted in failure to check work properly.

The four were vindicated in May 1993 when a former High Court judge, Sir Michael Davies, reported on the matter. Although he found that some of the academics had not always acted wisely or moderately he concluded that any criticism of them was outweighed by the fact that their complaints about academic standards had been substantially justified. The principles of natural justice had not been followed in dealing with them. He criticised the college for taking disciplinary action against the academics before investigating their complaints, adding that the system should not have permitted the college to “get (its) retaliation in first”. Sir Michael also cited the need to preserve academic freedom and criticised a statement by the Principal of the college, who had said that if the four had worked for a company they would have been sacked instantly. Sir Michael commented that there was a difference between the academic world and “a commercial jungle” adding: “neither the University of Wales nor the University College of Swansea is ‘a company’ in the profit-making or any other sense. They are academic institutions. I believe this has not always been remembered in Swansea.” On his recommendation, Michael Cohen, Anne Maclean and Colwyn Williamson have now been reinstated.

But one of Sir Michael’s recommendations has not been carried out. He urged that his report should be made public – but neither the Privy Council (on whose behalf it was carried out) nor University College Swansea have done so.

Bill Goodwin

Bill Goodwin, who receives an Award, is the journalist who risked imprisonment rather than reveal his sources. In 1989, as a 23-year old trainee journalist on the Engineer magazine his article based on leaked information was suppressed by an injunction obtained by the company he was writing about. The company, Tetra Business Systems, also obtained a court order requiring him to identify his source – which he refused to obey. Mr Goodwin argued that the protection of sources was an essential professional obligation. If journalists breached their undertakings to their sources they would not be trusted with information, and the press would be unable to expose wrongdoing.

The company was determined to identify the whistleblower and asked the court to imprison the journalist for contempt. The Court of Appeal refused to even hear his appeal unless he handed over his interview notes in a sealed envelope, to be opened if the decision went against him – which he again refused to do. The House of Lords found that he had been in contempt, but the prison sentence which had been widely feared was not imposed.

The ruling made clear that section 10 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which had been designed to protect journalists’ sources, was largely useless. Section 10 allows a journalist to withhold the name of a source unless disclosure is “necessary in the interests of justice”. It had been thought this would apply only in serious cases, for example where there was a risk of miscarriage of justice during a trial. But the Law Lords ruled that it permitted a court to order disclosure merely to help a company identify and sack a whistleblower. Mr Goodwin has challenged this ruling as a contravention of Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights – which guarantees freedom of expression. In September 1993 the European Commission on Human Rights ruled his case admissible, and asked the British government to try and reach a settlement with Mr Goodwin – who is seeking a change in British law to protect sources properly. If agreement is not reached, the case will go to the European Court of Human Rights.

Oxford City Council’s Health and Environmental Protection Committee

Oxford City Council’s Health and Environmental Protection Committee receive an Award for its vigorous efforts to prise environmental information out of central government and other environmental agencies on behalf of the public. In July 1991 Thames Water warned thousands of Oxford consumers to boil their drinking water, after tap water samples were found to be contaminated with faecal bacteria. The government’s Drinking Water Inspectorate investigated, but refused to release its report – though it did supply a letter summarising the findings. In December 1992 the Inspectorate told Oxford MP Andrew Smith that “only in exceptional circumstances would Ministers order the publication of a detailed report on the incident”. After further refusals, the Council threatened to take the Department of the Environment to the European Commission. Finally, in June 1993, two years after the incident, the report was sent to the Council, who made it public. It showed that the slowness of Thames Water’s response meant that consumers were warned to boil their water a day later than they should have been.

The Council has also sought and publicised information on other environmental issues, inviting representatives of external agencies to answer questions at its committee meetings and at public seminars, and it has involved the public by co-opting members of environmental and other local groups onto its pollution control and nuclear issues sub-committee.

Caroline Godwin

Caroline Godwin, news editor of the Central News agency, receives an Award for her persistent challenges to court secrecy orders. On two occasions she has succeeded in overturning reporting restrictions in the Court of Appeal. In a case brought by her in September 1990 the Lord Chief Justice ruled that a judge at Middlesex Crown Court had been wrong to rule that evidence relating to alleged improper activities of police officers and their informant be heard in secret. In a 1991 case, she successfully challenged a ruling which concealed the identity of two defendants in a child abuse case. The Appeal Court agreed with her that the power relied on by the judge only allowed the identity of the child – not the defendant – to be suppressed.

In 1993 she successfully applied for reporting restrictions to be lifted in the case of a juvenile who, while awaiting trial on a charge of rape, carried out an armed robbery. At her request the court agreed to lift the ban normally imposed on identifying a juvenile defendant. The defence challenged both the decision and her standing to make formal representations. The ruling was upheld on both counts in the appeal court, establishing the important principle that journalists are entitled to make representations directly to the trial judge.

Charles Medawar

Charles Medawar receives an Award for persuading the House of Commons to drop an archaic ban on note-taking during parliamentary debates. For hundreds of years members of the public who visit parliament have been prohibited from writing in the public gallery. Anyone who insisted on making notes of what MPs were saying would be in contempt of Parliament, and in theory could be imprisoned – though in practice being thrown out of the building would be more likely. Mr Medawar was prevented from taking notes during a debate on the Medicines Information Bill in April 1993 – a bill which his organisation, Social Audit, helped to sponsor, and about which he had been asked to write an article for the Lancet. Afterwards he took the matter up with a number of MPs, and his vigorous protests at this “inexplicable and blatant abuse of basic democratic rights” have now led the House of Commons authorities to lift the ban for a trial period.

Des Wilson

To mark the Tenth Anniversary of the Campaign a special Award goes to Des Wilson who founded the Campaign in January 1984 and remained its co-Chairman until 1989. Des Wilson’s unique experience of running pressure groups including Shelter, Friends of the Earth and the Campaign for Lead Free Air, persuaded him official secrecy was the major obstacle to change. He set up the Campaign as an all-party organisation with wide support from voluntary and professional organisations, at a time – following Mrs Thatcher’s second election victory – when many believed that freedom of information was a lost cause. He was responsible for the broad strategy which the Campaign continues to operate, and which has led to a series of successful private members’ bills giving people new rights to see medical and other personal files on themselves and access to environmental and safety information.

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