talk to Strathclyde University journalism students, 30 April 2013
1. Don’t go drift netting for thousands of fish, go angling for one or two. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with fishing for information from public agencies, but it’s best if you have at least an idea of what you’re looking for - a rough idea of where the bodies might be buried, or where the smoking guns are hidden.
2. Know your topic before you make freedom of information (FoI) requests. Be aware of what’s already in the public domain. Use Google to check what’s online. Look at the information already released, and work out which public agencies might have the information you’re after. Talk to experts, insiders, academics, campaigners, politicians – anyone who might have insight into the issue you are researching.
3. Use investigative journalism. FoI requests are not a substitute for investigatory research work, they are a supplement to it. By far the best FoI requests are those where you know exactly what you are looking for, when an insider or campaigner has tipped you off to the existence of an interesting or embarrassing report or email, and you can ask for it by date, reference number or author.
4. Ask about things that matter to you. I think it’s important to make FoI requests about issues that concern you, bother you, worry you – about things you really care about, are curious about. Scams you suspect, injustices that anger you, pollution that upsets you, societal idiocies you think need to be exposed.
5. Ask others for help. In any field there are likely to be others who have thought about what you are thinking about. Find them, share knowledge, and discuss what information to pursue and how best to pursue it. Sometimes others will want to help you make FoI requests which they want to ask but find difficult because of the position they are in. I’m sometimes approached by campaign groups who prefer me to make FoI requests rather than them, because they can be seen as confrontational.
6. Don’t be confrontational. Be as polite and helpful as you can. Be aware that you may not know how much trouble and expense you are causing a public agency because you don’t know how much information they hold, or in what format they hold it, or how accessible it is. Always be prepared to talk to officials about your requests, to help them understand what you’re looking for, and you understand what they’ve got.
7. Remember that the freedom of information officers that work for public agencies can be your friends. They are sometimes looking for the best arguments from you to help them persuade their FoI-averse colleagues to let go of their prejudices and release the information.
8. Be patient. Be very patient. As we’ve seen, making FoI requests requires patience, lots of it. It's not easy for journalists or others with daily or weekly deadlines, or lots of work, but it can pay off.
9. Be tenacious. Don’t get bored and give up. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Keep the faith. You should get answers sooner or later, and it might be worth it.
10. Don’t forget your requests. Keep a record of when replies are due, put notes in your diary, and, if answers don’t appear, chase them up. That’s partly why I keep a running log of my requests on my website.
11. Use whatdotheyknow.com. One way to help keep track of requests is to use an FoI site like whatdotheyknow.com, which has email addresses for public agencies, and publishes every response online. This, though, has the disadvantage from the journalistic point of view that any information you get is available for anyone else to read, so you could be scooped. In any case, it’s well worth looking at whatdotheyknow.com to see how others have phrased questions, and the answers they’ve received.
12. Always ask for an internal review. If your request is refused, always ask for an internal review. It’s relatively easy to do, and with some organisations prompts a thoroughgoing review and yields more documents. And it’s a stage you have to go through before you can appeal to the Information Commissioner in Scotland or the UK.
13. Appeal to the Information Commissioner. If your internal review gets nowhere, it is always worth thinking about appealing to the Information Commissioner, though that inevitably involves some work, as you’ve got to put together a picture of what’s happened so far, and make arguments.
14. Publish your results. Sell a story to a news organisation, write a blog, post on Facebook, send out tweets. Tell the world what you’ve discovered.
15. Be innovative. Dare to go where no-one has gone before. There are bound to be ideas and approaches I haven’t considered. Be imaginative.
16. Don't get downhearted. Exposing secrets and wrongdoing, holding public agencies to account, challenging the way our money is spent and the way our political representatives, officials and decision-makers behave is, I think, important work. We have a right to know what is being done in our name. And it’s vital that every generation - yours perhaps more than ever - keep our democracy under scrutiny.
To end, two contrasting quotes. Who said this?
"Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head till it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”
That was the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in his memoirs in 2010, deeply regretting introducing the Freedom of Information Act. I don’t know about you, but I find that rather reassuring. The point of freedom of information is to make life uncomfortable for those in power. The fact that Blair, who led the UK into a murderous war against Iraq on false pretences, found freedom of information law to be so annoying is proof that it is working.
And here’s another quote that I think goes to the heart of why FoI is vital. It comes from a radical US feminist, journalist and activist, Robin Morgan. “Knowledge is power. Information is power,” she said. “The secreting or hoarding of knowledge or information may be an act of tyranny camouflaged as humility.”