Gove under pressure as Guardian, Times, Telegraph, FT, Mirror and others sign openDemocracy letter calling for investigation of controversial FOI ‘Clearing House’
Mary Fitzgerald www.opendemocracy.net
More than a dozen current and former national newspaper editors have signed an openDemocracy public letter calling for MPs to urgently investigate the British government’s handling of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
The rare show of unity from traditional rivals across the British press comes in response to an openDemocracy investigation which revealed details of a secretive unit inside Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office, described as “Orwellian” by the head of the National Union of Journalists.
A shadow cabinet minister has accused the unit, known as the ‘Clearing House’, of “blacklisting” journalists. It is also said to have blocked the release of sensitive FOI requests.
Joining openDemocracy’s call for transparency, the editor of The Times, John Witherow, called the situation a “disgrace” and Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, criticised government “time-wasting on legitimate FOI requests”, saying it stands “at odds with its global commitments to press freedom”.
They join the editors and editors-in-chiefs of openDemocracy, The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, Financial Times and Daily Mirror, as well as Paul Dacre, chief executive of Associated Newspapers, Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, and Lionel Barber, former editor of the Financial Times, in signing openDemocracy’s letter demanding swift action to protect FOI.
The letter calls for an investigation into the controversial Clearing House unit. It also demands new measures to speed up FOI requests and greater support for the Information Commissioner’s Office, which oversees FOI.
openDemocracy is working with the law firm Leigh Day on a legal bid to force the Cabinet Office to reveal full details of how the Clearing House operates, and nearly 40,000 people have also signed a petition to Michael Gove calling for urgent action.
Expressing his support for openDemocracy’s initiative, Times editor John Witherow said: “Transparency is not a privilege or a gift bequeathed to a grateful citizenry by a benign government. It is a fundamental right of a free people to be able to see and scrutinise the decisions made on their behalf.
“That message has failed to get through to the government of Boris Johnson, which seems hell-bent on making it harder. This is not only a disgrace, but a mistake.”
Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner also called for more powers for the Information Commissioner to investigate breaches of the law on FOI: “Given the huge amounts of public money now spent with private contractors, a clear commitment to greater transparency and a well-funded Information Commissioner are manifestly in the public interest,” she said.
‘Against the spirit and the letter of the law’
Today’s joint letter – addressed to the chairs of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee – comes amid rising concerns about how Freedom of Information requests are dealt with, particularly within Whitehall.
Conservative MP David Davis, a signatory of today’s letter, has described the Clearing House as “certainly against the spirit of the (FOI) Act – and probably the letter, too”.
A recent report released by openDemocracy showed that FOI response rates are at their lowest level since the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act 20 years ago.
When previously questioned by MPs about the Clearing House, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said that the government treats all Freedom of Information requests in “exactly the same way”, adding: “They’re applicant blind, so whether or not it’s a freelance journalist, someone working for an established title, or a concerned citizen.”
However, after openDemocracy reporter Jenna Corderoy sent a Freedom of Information request to the Attorney General’s Office, she discovered that staff at the office had written in internal emails: “Just flagging that Jenna Corderoy is a journalist,” and: “Once the response is confirmed, I’ll just need [redacted] to sign off on this before it goes out, since Jenna Corderoy is a reporter for openDemocracy.”
Other disclosures suggest that many requests, including those from The Guardian, The Times, the BBC, Privacy International, Big Brother Watch and others have been treated in similar ways, undermining the “applicant-blind” principle of the FOI Act.
In December, openDemocracy reported that the Clearing House had blocked the release of documents about the infected blood scandal, involving thousands of people who received contaminated transfusions. And in January, we revealed that the housing ministry had told local councils it was “appropriate” to block the release of information about buildings that still have Grenfell-style cladding.
Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves this week called for the FOI Act to be extended to cover public service contracts outsourced to private firms, amid numerous reports of prominent Conservative party donors being handed lucrative government work.
‘Deteriorating’ press freedom in the UK
Experts warn of a worsening climate for media freedom in the UK. Reporters without Borders (RSF) has criticised Boris Johnson’s government for its “vindictive” response to media criticism over its handling of the pandemic, warning that press freedom in the UK is being eroded.
Today’s openDemocracy letter on FOI (published in full below) has won the backing of cross-party MPs and peers, leading cultural figures such as the author Philip Pullman, human rights lawyers, journalists, press freedom advocates and global non-governmental organisations including Index on Censorship, RSF, Greenpeace, Article 19, PEN and Transparency International.
Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, warned: “In 2016 the government tried to clamp down on Freedom of Information and they failed: there was a public outcry at the time and the plans were dropped. Now it’s clear they just changed their tactics. The intended outcome is the same.
“To obstruct and restrict FOI shows the government’s disdain for open and transparent government and basic democratic scrutiny. Journalists from across the media industry are united on this issue, we all want to see FOI fully restored. To restrict FOI is to undermine public interest journalism.”
A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said: “A Clearing House function has operated in different forms for the 15 years since the FOI Act came into effect, and a small Cabinet Office team now helps ensure a consistent approach to requests for information.
“This is especially important for complex FOI requests where we must balance the need to make information available with our legal duty to protect sensitive information and national security.”
He added: “This government remains fully committed to its transparency agenda, routinely disclosing information beyond its obligations under the FOI Act, and releasing more proactive publications than ever before.”
The UK government is running a secretive unit inside Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office that’s accused of ‘blacklisting’ journalists and hiding ‘sensitive’ information from the public. Experts say they’re breaking the law – and it’s an assault on our right to know what our government is doing.
We’re not going to let it stand. We’re launching a legal battle – but we also need a huge public outcry, showing that thousands back our call for transparency. Will you add your name?