OPINION: For all this talk, will anything change?

Labour MPs rebel over it. Editors thunder over it. Pressure groups wax indignant over it. Home Secretary Jack Straw tries to justify it And I wonder how on earth it can be made to square with joined up journalism as well as joined up Government. I refer ,of course, to the Freedom of Information Bill, which is having a predictably troublesome passage through Parliament.

Labour MPs rebel over it. Editors thunder over it. Pressure groups

wax indignant over it. Home Secretary Jack Straw tries to justify it

And I wonder how on earth it can be made to square with joined up

journalism as well as joined up Government. I refer ,of course, to the

Freedom of Information Bill, which is having a predictably troublesome

passage through Parliament.



I am utterly cynical about open government, as it is called. I don’t

accept that there should be free access to a range of information held

by governments for reasons of national, as distinct from Governmental,

interest. A serious case can be made for strict confidentiality over

defence, economic and commercial intelligence and data relating to

individuals.



After all, we do have a Data Protection Act. Nor do I expect governments

to abandon control over the timing of the release of information if the

interests of proper consultative administration, let alone party

political advantage, are to be served.



In fact, I don’t reckon a Freedom of Information Act would necessarily

make much difference to governments since they are in control of what is

and what is not recorded. You could actually end up under a determined

Government with less information being provided with a Freedom of

Information Act on the statute book. For a determined Government would

also watch what it communicated to other countries such as the US or

Sweden, which are institutionally sieve-like. Everything depends on the

prevailing culture.



And the culture of all bureaucracies is secretive. So secretive, in

fact, that an inordinate amount of effort is spent by bureaucrats on

keeping PROs in the dark.



On the other hand, I can understand perfectly why pressure groups hanker

after freedom of information. They think they would be better able to

pursue their narrow interests if they knew the Government’s

thinking.



Similarly, I can see why academics and pundits think an open society

would be wonderful. They believe it would be easier to govern Britain

surrogately without the inconvenience of having to stand for election to

Parliament.



But I have never understood why journalists want everything on the

record since they are in the business of disclosure. They are by

definition much less interested in what is freely available than what is

secret.



So, don’t let’s get starry-eyed about freedom of information

legislation.



We shall have a long way to go, even when it becomes law, before

individuals feel they not only have the right to know what is on file

about them but also what affects their interests before those interests

are damaged by decisions. What this country needs is not freedom of

information legislation, but a culture shock which penalises

politicians, officials and companies for playing games with ordinary

folk. Show me a freedom of information buff and I will show you a

hypocrite.



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