By Steven Vass
The Scottish Executive was last year warned by the information commissioner about treating freedom of information requests from journalists differently from those made by members of the public.
In an angry exchange of letters with the Executive, obtained by the Sunday Herald, commissioner Kevin Dunion threatened to publish recommendations on best practice to ensure that requests are not interpreted too narrowly in future.
The row coincided with a decision last August by the commissioner over a request under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act from Sunday Herald environment editor Rob Edwards to the Executive about nuclear waste disposal.
In the decision, Dunion had labelled the Executive's interpretation of the FOI Act as "unreasonable and even perverse" and said it had failed to meet its obligations.
But it has now emerged that he wrote to Sir John Elvidge, the Executive's permanent secretary, one week earlier to express concerns about the way the request had been handled.
Noting that this was the second time he had found an Edwards request to the Executive to have been restrictively interpreted, Dunion wrote: "It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the response to Mr Edwards was less than helpful because of his journalistic role."
He went on to say that if this were not the case, he found it "extremely worrying" to think that the Executive was treating everyone in this manner and that it could "lead to the perception of bureaucratic barriers to public access to information".
On December 21, the Executive hit back with a letter from Richard Wakeford, the head of the department for the environment and rural affairs.
Wakeford said he was satisfied that the Executive was not treating journalists' requests differently and still thought it had been correct to turn Edwards away.
He took issue with Dunion's use of the word "perverse", saying it was "a strong and emotive adjective" and its use was not "justified or appropriate".
Given that the government is currently pushing to have the FOI Acts watered down, some might see this as a veiled threat to Dunion not to overstep the mark.
The case turned on the interpretation of a request from Edwards about nuclear waste disposal body Nirex which was originally made to the Executive in May 2005.
Having asked for "copies of the information held by the Executive on Nirex's plans for nuclear waste disposal", he was told that nothing was available.
On appeal, Dunion found that the Executive had interpreted the request to refer only to Nirex's actual plans and not to discussions or other information relating to the plans.
He did not ask that the information be released, however, because it had become the subject of another appeal that was and is still pending.
Edwards said this weekend:"It's encouraging that the Executive is being taken to task, but it's frustrating that the information I have been after is still not being released."
Neither Dunion's office nor the Executive would comment.