Freedom Of Information: So, Tony, who was on your Christmas list?

Having asked the question two years ago, we are still waiting for an answer. But don't let the bureaucracy grind you down, says Guy Adams
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The Independent Online

So, what Freedom of Information? What exactly, as this newspaper's front page rather pertinently asked a few days ago, has become of the right to know? It's two years since the Government introduced its much-trumpeted Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, and the general consensus, at least on Fleet Street, is that it has turned out to be rather a humbug.

Figures released during the Christmas period suggested that the allegedly ground-breaking law, which was supposed to give access to the murky filing cabinets of our ruling class, has in fact been ignored by them: 40 per cent of FOI requests are rejected, often for the most spurious of reasons.

We were not, for example, told what Lord Goldsmith told Tony Blair on the eve of the Iraq war; or what it costs to provide security for Prince Charles; or why David Blunkett didn't get quickly booted out of his grace-and-favour home last year. FOI, we are invited to conclude, has been a Blairite con-trick.

I count myself something of an expert in the slipperiness (if not dishonesty) with which the Government treats FOI requests, since I've spent the past two years attempting to use the law to secure access to Tony Blair's Christmas card list, a subject we'll come to in a minute.

Yet I can't help wondering if British journalists haven't largely squandered the golden opportunity that the FOI Act of 2004 could have, and should have, presented to them.

Before it came into effect, we were promised a new era, an age when Britain would finally catch up with the US (which introduced such legislation 30 years ago), Australia, Canada and New Zealand (10 years) or even little, old Ireland (five).

The British hack would be transformed, from a grubby man in an overcoat - forced to tap phones, pay bungs and cultivate shifty contacts in order to establish the truth - into a shiny-suited servant of democracy. The new law would, if you like, Americanise Fleet Street.

There was talk of a revolution in reporting techniques, and a new era of Whitehall "scoops". The Guardian, if I remember correctly, very sensibly decided to appoint its very own full-time FOI correspondent.

Yet, two years later, many reporters have given up on FOI. Many never took it up. Glancing around my office, or those of rival publications, I would estimate that fewer than 50 per cent of British journalists have made a single request under the Act.

It's difficult to explain why. Certainly, the FOI Act can be unwieldy, and labour intensive, and may take some time to produce a result. But tenacity is a trait of every decent reporter, and we must discount the thesis that journalists are simply too lazy to use it properly.

Secondly, there is a view that the modern reporter, in this troubled era for newspapers, simply doesn't have time to use FOI. What with all the cutbacks, and podcasts, and PA copy he's got to spend the day rewriting, there simply isn't time to fax or e-mail a complex request to some unhelpful bureaucrat.

There could be more to this: serious investigative journalism is probably in long-term decline. But there still remains, particularly among Sunday-newspaper journalists and specialist reporters, a firm emphasis on getting a "scoop". So something bigger is at work.

That bigger force is government. A good 50 per cent of the blame for the FOI's toothlessness lies in the dishonest, or at the very least deliberately evasive, tactics public authorities adopt in order to prevent it causing them embarrassment.

On which note, back to Tony Blair and his Christmas cards. Almost two years ago, I used FOI to request a list of the 1,900 close friends that our PM sent cards to, at the taxpayer's expense, during the festive season of 2004.

There was an obvious prurient, not to say public, interest in getting my hands on a copy. At the time, I was editing this newspaper's diary column, Pandora, and it would have made for a decent space-filler.

I'd assumed, for example, that George Bush was a banker for one of Tony's cards, but what about, say, Hugo Chavez? Did he get one, for form's sake? Rupert Murdoch no doubt did get one, but would Richard Desmond, whose newspapers were critical of Blair's regime?

As I say, it could have made a nice diary item; maybe more. Yet Downing Street twice refused my request, citing exemptions to FOI legislation, that ranged from "data protection" to "health and safety" and, rather bizarrely, "national security".

So, in June 2005, I asked the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, to decide whether Downing Street's use of exemptions was in keeping with the law. And now, 18 months later, I quiver with indignant rage to inform you that Thomas is still "dealing with" my request.

Every couple of months, one of his lackeys will write to me, on nice headed notepaper, saying that they're about to make a decision. I'll get very excited, and then... nothing. It's desperately disheartening.

My FOI appeal, and many thousands like it, is being passed between desks of civil servants in a Kafkaesque merry-go-round at Thomas's swanky headquarters in Cheshire. I may, or may not, get to see Blair's 2004 Christmas card list but, now that it's 2007, I'm not sure I really care.

Thomas's staff are, actually, very pleasant about the whole thing. The other day, they passed me a copy of an official report admitting that their performance to date has been unsatisfactory.

The problem, they say, is that, though the FOI Act states that there should be "presumption" for disclosure, the Government works in the opposite way: presuming they won't disclose, and then attempting to find an exemption that allows them to do just that.

As a result, Thomas's underfunded operation is swamped with complaints. Each one can take months, if not years, to deal with since Government departments stretch the process even longer by (deliberately, some suspect) taking months to reply to each of his letters.

It is, ultimately, a desperate mess: maddening for journalists and bad for democracy. And now Lord Falconer has suggested "reforming" the whole troubled system by charging a fee for access to information, or limiting the number of requests any individual may make.

That, if nothing else, ought to serve as a wake-up call to journalists: keep on plugging away at this law; make it work, and see its interminable appeal process through. Use FOI, or prepare to lose it.

As I write this, the Information Commission has just phoned. It plans to make a ruling on the case of Blair and his Christmas cards later this month. So, maybe, as long as you're very patient, FOI isn't always such a swizz, after all.