A Freedom of Information Act won’t herald a new age of openness

Labour came to office with a pledge to introduce a measure which could have wide-ranging implications for the PR industry. It is called a Freedom of Information Act. We have it from David Clark, Cabinet minister in charge of the measure, that he will ’roll back the veils of outdated and unnecessary secrecy’ and ’make Government more open and accountable’.

Labour came to office with a pledge to introduce a measure which

could have wide-ranging implications for the PR industry. It is called a

Freedom of Information Act. We have it from David Clark, Cabinet

minister in charge of the measure, that he will ’roll back the veils of

outdated and unnecessary secrecy’ and ’make Government more open and

accountable’.



As one who spent 23 years six months and one week precisely as a Civil

Service information officer under both Labour and Tory Governments,

trying to find out what was going on and to break down the often absurd

attempts to keep me ’safely ignorant’, I can only utter John Wayne’s

immortal words: ’That’ll be the day’.



All bureaucracies - government and commercial - are intensely

secretive.



This is not simply because it is part of the culture. It is also because

most people like to play safe. It is also because information is power

and few people like to give up power, least of all to press officers

who, they naively imagine, will instantly divulge it to the world. And

it is also partly out of our governors’ legitimate interest in

controlling the timing of the release of information.



But a certain secrecy is also necessary. Governments would be mad,

dangerous or politically suicidal to allow certain intelligence, whether

affecting security, the economy, commercial interests or individuals, to

be freely available. Similarly, company bosses would be out of their

tiny little minds, if they routinely disseminated information which

allowed their competitors to beat them in launching new products or

services.



Labour is making far too little of the limitations on freedom of

information and far too much of the brave new world that will follow its

promised legislation. After all, America has had freedom of information

for decades but the government smells no sweeter there than here in

buttoned-up Britain.



I am also profoundly sceptical about the effect of a Freedom of

Information Act on the media after their early comb through papers

released under a more liberal regime. Journalists are primarily

interested in revealing secrets, not in what is freely available. But I

do believe that a Freedom of Information Act can have a beneficial

effect on PR practitioners.



While Mr Clark says the Government will have to ’make sure individuals

retain their right to privacy and businesses aren’t damaged by breaking

commercial confidentiality’, bosses will have to face up to the

presentational problem of much more information about their activities

becoming routinely available. No longer will they have an excuse for

treating press officers like mushrooms - keeping them in the dark and

heaping manure on them when things go wrong. For PROs, salvation may be

at hand.



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