The price of free information

Thu, Nov 14, 2013, 01:00

Lest we forget, the 1997 Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, for which the Labour Party deserves substantial credit, was the product of a very specific time of public disillusionment in politics. A time not unlike our own. An election had taken place in the shadow of huge scandals – Goodman, Telecoms, Greencore . . . – amid talk of “golden circles” connecting politics and business. Albert Reynolds had promised “we will let in the light”. FOI was an important, welcome part of the response.

Its rationale was two-fold: give citizens access to files held on them by the state, and, crucially, provide general access to documents that would let voters hold politicians and public servants to account. Like the vote, it was to be a key instrument of a functioning democracy. Like the vote, there should have been no charge, but the initial Act provided for charges for search and retrieval. In 2003 an up-front fee of €15 per request for anything other than personal information was introduced, as well as new appeals charges and limits to access.

The decision last night by Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin not to make matters worse by raising charges further is to be welcomed. He has also placed a welcome cap of €500 on search and retrieval fees. Mr Howlin withdrew for redrafting the most controversial amendment which would have levied multiple request charges on single requests when they involve several sections of departments. But the Minister should have gone further and adopted standard international best practice by also announcing the abolition of all upfront charges and reducing search and retrieval fees to cost of reproduction (email for free).

The case for charges has been made by referring somewhat disparagingly to multiple FOI requests as fishing expeditions – the assumption is that because journalists don’t know what they will find in the documents they are requesting in random trawls, they are just chancers wasting State resources on the off-chance of finding a “sexy” scoop. Yet this is precisely to miss the point of any FOI regime – journalists have no choice but to cast their net wide and “fish” because government officials are hardly going to tell them “you might find it interesting and useful to confine your search to X or Y”.

FOI requests already cost this newspaper several thousand euro a year, and more than one of our reporters has faced demands for over €1,000 for responses to specific queries – disgracefully, one important story on home-help neglect prompted a demand for €1,340.80 in search and retrieval fees.

FOI is not fundamentally about press freedom but about shifting the balance of power in an open society from secretive government to empower citizens. Mr Howlin was shifting that balance back. His second thoughts are welcome, but, if genuinely committed to political reform, he needs to go further.

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