Freedom of information must mean just that

Taken from the speech delivered by Phil Harding, the BBC's controller of editorial policy at the Society of Editors' spring seminar
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The Independent Online

It's almost exactly a year since we last met in Warwick. The last 12 months have been the busiest on record for legislation affecting how the media operate in this country. Some of this legislation threatens the operation of a free media in this country.

It's almost exactly a year since we last met in Warwick. The last 12 months have been the busiest on record for legislation affecting how the media operate in this country. Some of this legislation threatens the operation of a free media in this country.

The list is long and growing. There has been the Local Government Bill, the new Data Protection Act, the Freedom of Information Bill, the Terrorism Bill, and now the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill. The interception of e-mail is something we are going to be hearing a lot more about in the future.

In the courts, there have been injunctions against newspapers. We have had judges instituting restrictive reporting bans in their court. We have had court cases where the press benches have been restricted to all but two reporters.

But in the debate I want us to ask some hard questions of our own profession. Do we always do enough to push the arguments about the freedom of the media to report in the public interest? And when there are opportunities to report, to probe, to investigate, do we always take them?

Let's start with the Freedom of Information Bill. When it was first announced, we all welcomed the Government's intention to introduce this Bill. It was something that many of us felt was long overdue. But what we have actually got is something less than what was promised.

But did we as editors do everything in our power to make this Bill as strong as possible? Has this issue really attracted the heavyweights from the national press in the way that, say, the threat of privacy legislation did? This time, have too many editors shrugged their shoulders and said "I think we'll leave this one to The Guardian, thanks all the same"?

And when we finally do get the Act - flawed though it may be - are we as journalists going to make the fullest possible use of it? Are we going to push to see every relevant file and kick up a fuss when we can't? And are we going to let the public know what information we can now get - and, as importantly, what we still can't get? This won't be that easy.

But if we are serious about freedom of information, then we have got to use the system to its limits and then some more. We have got to shake it "till the bits start to drop off".

The new Data Protection Act has, in the hands of some police press officers at least, become the Data Denial Act. In this new make-believe world, road accidents no longer happen and there certainly weren't any people involved in it, or at least not without their permission. And this seems to be a recurring theme of much of this legislation.

A piece of legislation starts off in pursuit of an entirely laudable aim such as the right to privacy or freedom from terrorism. But it then gradually becomes widened and broadened in its scope so as to become a genuine obstacle to the free disclosure of information. As a result, those in power are able to protect themselves from the glare of scrutiny. Their level of accountability is reduced, and the net effect is profoundly anti-democratic.

Next on the list we come to the Local Government Bill. The arguments that have been used to justify this have, I have to say, bordered on the bizarre. So if there is anyone here today who can put the argument better than this, please do in the session this afternoon. The argument at its simplest seems to be this - we need to attract better people into local government; we won't do that unless we can make councillors' lives simpler; therefore, in order to make their lives simpler, we will make decision-making meetings private.

All this seems to overlook one very important point. These are democratically elected councillors who are spending the public's money and exercising considerable power not in their own right but on behalf of their electorate. But the electorate, of course, will now have the greatest difficulty in finding out what has been done in their name.

Already, several effective local campaigns have been launched against this policy of "decisions behind closed doors". Some have been successful. Where the doors are not yet open, we must keep hammering on them.

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