FOI: ‘to deter malpractice’

A version of this article appeared in the March-April 2004 edition of Free Press journal
published by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

“A government which pursues secret aims, or which operates in greater secrecy than the effective conduct of its proper functions requires, or which turns information services into propaganda agencies, will lose the trust of the people.” Despite its contemporary ring this is not a recent quote: it comes from the 1972 Franks report on the old Official Secrets Act. It shows how long the dangers of excessive secrecy to government itself have been recognized.

The theme was taken up by the recent Phillis report into the government communications service. The report argued that, properly implemented, the Freedom of Information Act would deter partisan reporting and spin and provide an essential opportunity for the government to rebuild trust. But it warned that some of the Act’s shortcomings could make things worse. In particular, it called on the government to voluntarily renounce the ministerial veto which allows ministers to overrule the Information Commissioner in key areas. Unfortunately, the government has refused to do so.

The Hutton report did not directly refer to the issue of secrecy, but the openness of the inquiry itself made the point far more eloquently. By the time the report was published, the public had seen the evidence, understood its implications and appreciated how misleading the government’s own account of its conduct had been. Remarkably, none of this was reflected in the Hutton report itself. But this only served to increase the scepticism of a public which had seen the material itself. As William Rees-Mogg put it in The Times “Public opinion has overturned Lord Hutton on appeal”.

One of the purposes of an FOI Act is to deter malpractice in government and allow the public to check that authorities are doing their job properly. Many requests will be prompted by a suspicion – perhaps unjustified – of some government shortcoming. An authority which fails to respond openly can only reinforce the belief that something disreputable is being hidden. But an authority which goes out of its way to answer properly, even if the news is not all good, has a real chance of persuading people that it is trying to address, not cover up, its problems.

Alastair Campbell, the prime minister’s former press chief, in his post-Hutton statement may have put his finger on a real issue when he said: “If the public knew the truth about politicians they would be pleasantly surprised”. If this is true, then the secrecy which too often characterises government’s behaviour must be deeply counterproductive, serving only to conceal how conscientiously the system works. It can only be in the government’s interests to let the public see more. Of course, if Campbell’s dictum is not true, the case for FOI as a check on misbehaviour becomes greater than ever.

Maurice Frankel is director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information

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