Brian Cox as the House of Commons Speaker Michael Martin in the BBC drama On Expenses
By John Jenkins, former night editor at the Daily Telegraph
The Freedom of Information Act is the most important piece of legislation to affect journalism for fifty years. It enables journalists to exploit legally one of the most important definitions of news ever uttered: the ability to tell people what officials do not want them to know.
You can read up the Act and learn it off by heart and obtain a 100 per cent mark in any future examination. And that will be useless to you.
Just as you could learn the Highway Code alongside a manual for a Bentley Mulsanne and not have a clue how to drive.
If you can watch a superb BBC dramatised version of the revelations surrounding MPs’ expenses written by Tony Saint, you will know the conditions in which this Act changed the shabby face of British politics.
Instead of hiding behind a novel’s standard disclaimer, the programme, about the heroic tenacity of Heather Brooke to break the code of secrecy, goes out of its way to confirm that much of its content is actual historical reporting.
It was first shown on BBC in February 2010 and repeated two days after the general election on May 8th.
You should also buy Heather Brooke’s book: The Right to Know. If you buy it online make sure you get the latest edition.
Within a short time of the introduction of the FoI by the Labour government in 2005 politicians were saying it was the worst thing that Tony Blair had done.
A vicious campaign to water it down began but the expenses explosions which rocked Westminster has made every MP in the land wary of trying to emasculate this important Act.
Having digested as much as you can about the Act and highlighting those parts which are vital or unclear, it is then time to listen to one of the handful of master practitioners. Such a man is Matt Davis, renowned by the news desks of national newspapers as a reporter who digs gold out of mountains of statistics and has a forensic cross examiner’s skill at putting questions.
Over the past years I must have listened to more than 100 people lecturing on various aspects of journalism and creative writing. Some are good, some are hopeless and a very, very few are brilliant. Davis is in the latter category.
So much so, that when I came to write what I hope will be the best and most up to date book on the black art I went to TheJournalistWorks in Brighton, where Davis lectures on the fast track course for graduates, and asked permission to sit in.
In two hours what I suspected was right was confirmed. What I found difficult to understand was made crystal. What I had seen – and experienced as hurdles – were destroyed. I left with a dozen ideas for stories churning through my mind.
Even better, I revised my lectures on how to get to the front of the queue in the quest for a job.
Any job on a reasonable publication will attract a shoal of applicants. The editor will whittle them down to five or six. Frequently there will not be a whisker, or should I say an eyelash between them – first- class exam results, pleasant appearance, articulate, bright eyed and ambitious.
So who gets the job? Simple. The one who displays most energy and initiative.
Hence my advice has always been – for the interview take a story in with you for that publication. Make sure it is topical, accurate and relevant to the publication. Now I have added a rider to that advice – and if you take in a story which is the result of a Freeedom of Information inquiry, which is topical, controversial and well researched you can knock your name off the unemployment statistics.
The stark fact is that not every working reporter understands or can handle FoI inquiries. And whisper it: some editors are not experts on the procedure. I say that as a man who was once a member and regional secretary of the Guild of British Newspaper editors.
Here then, is the gospel according to Matt Davis and Heather Brooke.
Study this website: http://www.whatdotheyknow.com
Phrase you questions with care
Be as specific as you can about dates and reports
When necessary ask for a comparison – e.g. number of unsolved murders in Dorset over a five-year period
Research who is best to answer the information
Speak softly and politely in any phone call
Often the suspicion that you will follow up with an official FoI request will be enough to obtain the information
If your request is refused the source must explain why
Your request must be answered within 20 working days (about a month)
If the source says they do not have the information ask them who has
Never take no for an answer
Don’t waste your time pursuing information which is already available
Use full names: e.g. British Broadcasting Corporation, not BBC.
There is a list of government departments and executive agencies listed by the Cabinet Office which is available to you
You do not have to reveal that you are a journalist
You have a right to appeal to the Information Commissioner against a refusal.
Now beware the standard ploys to put you off.
The data is not available…the Data Protection Act…a matter which is sub judice…a hint to local reporters that you will not get any future co-operation if you persist…a matter of national security…the cost of providing the facts is prohibitive..the information is already in the public domain…the facts are so delayed that your expected story becomes stale.
There is also the ploy of submerging you with minutes and reports which will make your heart sink when you contemplate the amount of work required to pan the gold from the dross.
Don’t give up. You may find an even better story than the one you originally envisaged and you can always return with more precise supplementary questions.