Journalists' exposes the only competition discouraged

 

Competition, this Government tells us, will bring greater efficiency to all aspects of life. And so it is with the competition that the Freedom of Information Act has brought to the journalistic profession.

Journalists might claim their Freedom of Information requests are motivated by a deep commitment to increasing public understanding of the operation of Government. In reality, however, their requests are usually motivated by a desire to get a story their rivals don't have, to reveal information first, to get a "scoop".

The use of the FoI Act is a classic example of how competition - much lauded by various Ministers - can improve standards. Newspapers compete with each other to put in the most searching requests, thus producing the best exclusive stories. Competition has driven the flow of information into the public domain.

This form of competition, however, is one which a number of Ministers are now making a determined effort to stop.

Use of the Freedom of Information Act by competitive reporters has produced some of the best political stories of recent years, which, in turn, have caused great embarrassment to the Government.

These include: the tensions between Mr McCreevy and Mr Martin over health spending; the spiralling costs of the Abbotstown stadium project; the state of the public finances before the last election; the handling of the controversial attempt to appoint Mr Hugh O'Flaherty to the European Investment Bank; and the church/State negotiations over compensation for clerical abuse victims.

Reporters, using the Freedom of Information Act to compete with each other for stories, increased public knowledge and understanding of all of these matters.

However, the Government is now taking action to put an end to this particular form of competitiveness. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Mr Ahern, introduced a new way of treating Freedom of Information requests in April, and has so captured the imagination of his Cabinet colleagues that many are considering following suit.

Mr Ahern's system is simple: every Freedom of Information request is placed on his Department's website as soon as it is received - even before the requester has received an official acknowledgement.

So, if say an Irish Independent reporter seeks documents under the Freedom of Information Act to help with a particular story, his or her rivals in The Irish Times and everywhere else get to find out about this request. The "scoop" value of what the Independent reporter is up to is lost, even before the answer to the Freedom of Information request is released.

Indeed, the practice of the Department, so far, is not really to disseminate the answers to these questions on the web at all. Rather, it is simply to put journalists' lines of inquiry into the public domain.

In April and May, some 48 requests for information were put on the Department's website. While all of these have been answered, just five of these answers have been put on the website. So Mr Ahern's Department is not using the new system to put information about its own operation on the web - it is simply disclosing to everyone the stories journalists are working on.

A spokesman for Mr Ahern said this week this was a temporary or "pilot" practice where only queries to a relatively small section of the Department would be answered on-line. Ultimately, the Department hoped to put all answers on public display but, in the meantime, all the queries would be posted.

The spokesman also insisted that this was all about his Department's commitment to increasing the use of on-line communications. "We are the Department of Communications after all," he said.

The result will undoubtedly be a fall-off in the use of FoI by reporters. Mr Ahern's innovation is now on the brink of spreading to other Government Departments. It was discussed at a Cabinet meeting a couple of weeks ago, although details of this discussion have not been revealed - Cabinet confidentiality, you understand.

But the Department of Finance now says it is "looking" at the system with a view to introducing it.

The Department of Education said this week that it is interested in principle, but has no plans to start doing it yet.

A Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman said this week his Department is "looking at the practicalities" and it is "under active consideration".

Other Departments including Health, Environment, Justice, Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs also confirmed this week they were considering it.

Only the Department of Defence said it had "no intention as of now" of doing this. "We saw it as involving a lot of time and a lot of work," a Department spokesman said.

A precise answer on whether it is time-consuming or costly must await the answer to a Freedom of Information request sent by this writer to Mr Ahern's Department this week (this request is, by the way, available to be viewed at http://www.dcmnr.gov.ie/display.asp/pg=1071. An official acknowledgement is still awaited).

The Government has therefore attacked the Freedom of Information Act on three fronts this year.

The recent amendments to the Act will conceal facts which, up to now, had to be revealed. The new high charges for FoI requests will turn access to official information into a pay-per-view service rather than a right. And now the removal of the "scoop" value to the press will reduce the number of troublesome journalists' queries.

Expect a po-faced injured innocence response from Government shortly, telling us this is all about openness and transparency.