Freedom of information – friend or foe?

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This week will mark the fifth anniversary of a crucial piece of Labour legislation – one which has single-handedly provided some of the decade’s most shocking and widely read news stories.

On New Year’s Day 2005, the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act was introduced across all levels of the public sector, with the aim of radically increasing the transparency of local and national government. But has it worked?

The bill has fuelled stories such as the MPs’ expenses scandal and Prince Charles’ infamous “black spider memos”. It has also resulted in the less deliberate divulgence of information such as BBC presenters’ salaries, which are currently exempt from the Act’s provisions. But in a fascinating article marking the legislation’s anniversary, The Guardian‘s Ben Dowell raises some interesting points about its use and purpose.

Journalists frequently complain that ministers deliberately manipulate and weaken the Act so as to tie up requested information for months, or even years, at a time. Dowell, however, asserts that in many instances, journalists are equally to blame for improper use of the legislation’s provisions, by intentionally focusing on stories of failure, scandal and dishonesty.

So has the FOI Act been successful? And if not, who is to blame? Are the media exploiting its intended use by deliberately digging for the juiciest scandal and most damning report, or is the increasingly bureaucratic and long-winded system of getting that information proof in itself that it needs exposing?

Perhaps the wider point is that freedom of information promotes a culture of openness. When agencies no longer feel the need to hide salient details from each other, they are more likely to liaise, share and help one another. Administration problems and interpretation of use aside, surely this is a principle to aspire to.