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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Media singled out for special FOI treatment of unexpected kind

In "Pattern of FOI secrecy emerges", Chris Merritt in The Australian says that while the Federal Freedom of Information Act works reasonably well for those seeking information about themselves, its not working for those who seek information about policy and related matters.

The article quotes Rick Snell of the University of Tasmania as saying that last year's McKinnon decision in the High Court has effectively neutered the scheme as a method of gaining access to contentious information. In addition to conclusive certificates that can be used to block access, high charges are being used to deter journalists who often seek this type of information.

Coincidentally, the UK Lord Chancellor in a speech this week singled out journalists for comment regarding use of the FOI Act. He distinguished the public right to know, which he accepted, from the "media's right to tell", which he didn't.

In an otherwise positive speech about FOI and its likely significance as one of the government's greatest reforms - in this respect, the sort of speech no one can remember any Australian politician making - Lord Falconer says it's all about members of the public and their rights, not about the media and any special claim it might have for access and dissemination of information in the public interest.

Ben Fenton, in the (UK) Telegraph provides a spirited defence of the special role of journalists in digging out information that holds public authorities to account and informs as many people as possible: "If you set information free, as Lord Falconer apparently wants, only to roam in a tiny paddock rather than across the globe, what kind of freedom is that?"

Fenton points out that Lord Falconer's view could be a forerunner for deciding that the press has no special role in covering court cases, state occasions, or at Parliament.

Another commentator suggests that Lord Falconer seems to prefer FOI applicants who don't know much about the Act and what to ask for, rather than those who apply and know what they are talking about:
"Couldn't have people who actually know how to go digging for information making use of it now, could we?"

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