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Friday, November 28, 2008

FOI simple for ABC

Matthew Moore in the Sydney Morning Herald last Saturday commented on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's exemption from the Freedom of Information Act in relation to program material, and the generous interpretation of the provision to deny access to an application for correspondence with Malcolm Turnbull about a profile screened on him.

The ABC was successful in the Federal Court two years ago in convincing the Court to take a broader view of the meaning of the exemption than the protection of ABC's commercial interests, apparently what was originally intended. Here is a post about that case from August 2006 and the decision that "with respect to documents in relation to its program material" covered anything that had a direct or indirect relationship to program material.

The Corporation's latest Annual Report (Appendix 18, page 201) records that only nine FOI applications were received in the year to 30 June. But eight were refused entirely, and one resulted in partial release of requested documents. I haven't checked but I'd be surprised if any agency subject to the Act could beat that rejection rate. Maybe the program material exemption proved to be handy in all or some of these cases-the report doesn't elaborate on what exemptions were claimed.

All a far cry from Canada this week where the ABC's counterpart CBC is crying foul over "distorted attacks" through 150 FOI applications this year, most from two media organisations, leading to a spate of stories based on released documents about travel, hospitality and corporate expenses. Apparently no generous exemptions of any kind have been of much help in dealing with those kind of requests.

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