Leading article: Not the stuff of front-page exposes, just a long overdue openness

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The Independent Online
Say "secret" to most journalists and they start to salivate. This is generally a healthy attitude to take in a representative democracy, because it encourages an eager desire to unearth information that people in power would prefer to obscure. But it is a desire that distorts judgements on the value or otherwise of freedom of information legislation, because a great deal of journalistic commentary on the issue assumes that the main idea is to reveal new scoops and buried front page treasures, as if there is a treasure trove of disclosures to be won once we have pushed the permanent under-secretaries and other Whitehall guardians out of the way.

Properly understood, freedom of information is not about what appears on the front page - at least, not in the first instance. First, it is about seeing a lot more detailed paperwork on policy, most of it deadly dull. At best it may help in understanding the rationale lying behind public policy; at worst it will enthral only academic specialists. Second - and this is what the Government should be aiming at when it publishes its White Paper tomorrow - it is about assuring members of the public that decisions taken in their name, especially those decisions affecting them personally, were well founded. In other words that they were fairly made, with all the accurate information and reasonable balance of judgement, even if adverse.

The state must say no to many things, and many people. Freedom of Information must not become a charter for whingers. It could be an additional guarantee that proper procedure is followed. A Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration has been in place for three decades; lately the ranks of the ombudspeople have swelled as Whitehall departments, councils and quangos have created their own adjudicators and auditors. But there remains a public appetite for redress, or rather for assurance that redress is there for the asking. Labour's proposed new commissioner may work, though it would help to know why the existing ombuds-bureaucracy has been failing in its task. Labour ministers and permanent secretaries need to re-dedicate themselves to the (Tory) initiatives designed to make public service more accountable, more consumer focused, more like the service provided by the best private sector firms.

Freedom of information is not a totem. New statutes opening up official filing cabinets cannot work independently of the culture and priorities of newspapers and broadcasters. Freedom of information, moreover, has to be understood as only a chapter in a too long delayed process of modernising government. Another is reforming the operations of the House of Commons, yet another is better defining the role of ministers in their departments. Besides, FoI is coming whether the law changes or not, as a by-product of developments in information technology and, possibly, also as a consequence of court decisions that are going to be taken under the new Convention on Human Rights.

Freedom of information law will disappoint the prurient. We are not going to include detailed reports on what Tony Blair said to Bernie Ecclestone and when. It must not become a substitute for hard work by parliamentarians. Private conversation is an essential element in government, as in the life of any organisation. No legislation will change that. What should no longer remain private are the papers in which facts are marshalled and advice given. Civil servants in a mature democracy need have no fear for their neutrality if, after the event, the tenor of their advice becomes known. Their only problem would be if they were personally identified, and that is usually not necessary.

As a logical consequence of a Freedom of Information Act, the Government will have to revise the present 30-year ban on releasing its papers. Thanks to the Internet, publication has become cheap and easy. There are, it is true, difficult, practical questions about how much administrative record should be preserved, but there seems no good reason why those classes of paper presently released to the Public Record Office after three decades have passed should not emerge sooner, perhaps after five years or when the governing party changes.

To work to the public's benefit, freedom of information will require a degree of responsibility on the part of the press, given our penchant for focusing on the individual politician rather than the argument, the embarrassing slip rather than the substantive issue. Yet the deformations of the press have themselves partly been caused by the governing culture. New Labour, new governing styles, new media? Perhaps.

At least it should be put to the test. As a token of good intent the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster should use his electronic capabilities this week not just to publish his White Paper, but also to release the ancillary documentation outlining the arguments that clearly have been going on during the past few months. Lord Irvine of Lairg may have had some good points; perhaps Dr David Clarke's line prevailed on merit. Let's see the deliberations of the Cabinet committee, and the papers presented to it, so that we can give this important White Paper the well-informed consideration it deserves.