As the Government's draft Freedom of Information Bill was unveiled, here is how some press commentators responded.

TONY BLAIR has lost his grip. Before the election, he promised us a Freedom of Information Act, giving the citizen a right to know what was going on in the bureaucratic machine.... But yesterday Home Secretary Jack Straw tried to drive a stake through the heart of that commitment. Information is power, which is why ministers and civil servants are so reluctant to part with it, and yesterday's draft Bill gave pitiful little indication of a change of culture.... It is important not to exaggerate. Freedom of information has not been neutered or castrated; it could yet bear fruit. But since it was snatched from the Cabinet Office last year, and dragged kicking and screaming to the Home Office, the legislation has been beaten to a pulp, and had all its teeth and fingernails extracted. It is now a shadow of a Bill; with no bite, no punch and little fight left in it.

Anthony Bevins, Express

WHAT KIND of fools do they think we are? A Freedom of Information Act is unworthy of its name if it can't be used to winkle out even vaguely important secrets. But then, in my view, it rarely can. Governments will always be able to bury really important secrets beyond the bounds of any Act. This Bill makes the job easier for public bodies. The Government can invoke that "prejudice" clause, and the shutters slam shut. New Labour doesn't much like freedom. I don't suppose it ever did, but in Opposition it understood the PR advantages of striking the right note around the stripped-pine kitchen tables of Islington.... For all its freedom-loving rhetoric in opposition, this has proved to be one of the most secretive governments in recent history.... I don't blame the Government for its standard aversion to openness, but I am flabbergasted by its brazenness. For this ultra-secretive government to pretend that it is in love with freedom, and for Mr Straw to trumpet a Freedom of Information Bill that places essentially optional obligations on public institutions, is going it a bit. It is the ultimate piece of spinning, an act of monumental chutzpah.

Stephen Glover, Daily Mail

IT IS A coincidence, albeit a grotesque one, that the Government's draft Freedom of Information Bill should be debated at the same time as we are afforded a glimpse of that freedom at its most wanton.... Freedom of information should always be the natural goal of an inquiring press. But the form in which that freedom is delivered may depend on what the press is inquiring about. If it is intent on battering down the doors of government bureaucracy in order to expose incompetence, corruption or downright lying ... it is unlikely to be bought off with watered-down legislation and a raft of escape clauses.... Faced with this thin apology of a Bill, one might have expected a concerted effort by the media to fight for its rights. But the comment has been muted .... This may be because the normally vociferous tabloid press had other important stories to explore.... So long as today's generation of young reporters is encouraged to look for the best stories in the bedroom rather than the corridors of power, the keys to official information can safely be withheld.

Magnus Linklater, The Times

IN THE UK, a strong freedom of information act could have challenged the long-entren- ched and long-outdated culture of government secrecy, which has gradually eroded the public's trust. The open government code of practice introduced by the Conservatives was a step forward, but proved too weak to have much impact. The white paper on freedom of information was radical, promising a regime that would have made Britain one of the world's more open governments. But nearly 18 months later, after many delays and internal wranglings, this promise has been much diluted. Most significantly, information can be kept secret when its release would cause "prejudice" instead of the "substantial harm" needed under the original draft. This will make it far easier for public bodies to argue against disclosure. The new test is no stronger than that prescribed in the current code of good practice, making it hard to believe that it can lead to a significant increase in openness.


Financial Times

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