Scott: FOI changes having chilling effect on journalism

Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott today warned that changes to freedom of information policy are having a chilling effect on journalism and called for publication procedures to be considered as part of a full independent inquiry. 

The call from the party comes after countless complaints from journalists, opposition parties, the independent Information Commissioner and open access campaigners about the Scottish Government’s adherence to freedom of information laws. Criticisms include failing to reply to requests, late responses, minutes of meetings not being taken so it can’t be released and special advisors becoming involved in assessing the responses collated by expert civil servants “for accuracy”.

In response, the Scottish Government announced that it would publish all freedom of information requests online as soon as they are issued.

Mr Scott commented:

“Ministers accepted a degree of criticism of their performance. However, the only measure they have really championed to address the fact they weren’t responding properly to freedom of information requests, publicly publishing all material released under FOI, is fraught with dangers of its own. 

“Just weeks into the new regime I am hearing from journalists that this is having a chilling effect on their work. We need quality investigative journalism to acquire the truth and get to the bottom of spin. These changes are designed to deter that. 

“Immediately publishing information publicly removes the incentive for journalists to pursue stories as they fear that whatever they uncover will immediately be made available to all their competitors. Fact and figures obtained under FOI may be just one part of a wider story in need of diligent pursuit. 

“This wheeze means the Scottish Government can appear transparent while achieving the opposite. Ministers have figured out they can evade scrutiny, deter the submission of requests and spike stories by devaluing the information. 

“There is a good argument that information released under FOI laws should be in the public domain. However, the best process for doing this should be considered as part of a wider independent inquiry. For example, a short delay between the provision of the information to the applicant and it being published could make the system fairer. 

“Meanwhile, the original problem of industrial scale evasion and the failure to release information we have a right to remains. Just this week, my party had to again chase up information that was asked for 17 weeks ago. Nothing less than a fully independent enquiry into all aspects of freedom of information will do, otherwise SNP ministers risk seriously undermining one of the crowning achievements of the Scottish Parliament.”

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