When the government announced its plans to review the Freedom of Information Act, signed into law in 2000, there were questions on how it would affect the ability for journalists to uphold the watchdog principle of journalism – holding people and organisations to account and to keep the public informed about civic life.
At the heart of this debate however was the future of student media, for as part of proposed additions was the exemption of universities from the Act. Dr Tim Bradshaw, the director of policy for the Russell Group universities, in a letter to the government late last year, said universities should be exempt because of the incurred costs of answering such requests, according to a report from the Epigram newspaper at the University of Bristol.
— Epigram News (@EpigramNews) March 1, 2016
‘Big part of what we do’
At the University of Warwick, questions were being asked amongst the editors of The Boar, including Bethan McGrath, one of the paper’s deputy editors.
“It was very distressing,” McGrath said in a telephone interview. “It’s really valuable to student opinion. It’s a big part of what we do.”
McGrath said students should be able to know where their money is going and how it is being spent, and that if universities had been exempt, they would not have been able to properly do their jobs.
The proposed changes got the attention of the Student Publication Association, which had organised a campaign to stop the provision from taking hold. Jem Collins, the chair of the SPA, wrote in a blog post at the time encouraging its members to submit evidence to the FOI Commission and to spread the word of the debate on social media platforms.
“We believe it’s important that power is held to account, and the FOI Act is a vital tool in making sure this happens,” Collins said, pointing to several stories in their 2015 FOI Awards ceremony, including the University of Bristol spending £20,000 on hotels, flights and airport transfers for the university’s former vice chancellor, Professor Sir Eric Thomas, and his wife, and which libraries at the University of Birmingham earn the most from fines.
“These would not have been unearthed without journalists’ access to information that is now facing a serious threat,” Collins said. Kettle is a member publication of the SPA.
— The Founder (@rhulfounder) November 18, 2015
Important stories to be told
McGrath said most students are interested in stories that utilise access to information under FOI, amid trying to appeal to all of the student body.
“It’s natural and good for them to know where [the money is] going,” McGrath said. “The challenge isn’t keeping interest, it’s trying to figure out where money isn’t going where we wanted to go.”
Then, on 1 March, Cabinet Office Minister Matt Hancock said the FOI law was working well and no worthwhile changes would be made, including charging fees to file requests.
“After 10 years, we took the decision to review the Freedom of Information Act and we have found it is working well,” Hancock said according to a report from the BBC. “We will not make any legal changes to FOI. We will spread transparency throughout public services, making sure all public bodies routinely publish details of senior pay and perks. After all, taxpayers should know if their money is funding a company car or a big pay-off.”
The report added that the government had decided not to introduce legislation to increase powers by ministers to reject the release of information. Earlier in the year, former Home Secretary Jack Straw said there would be no prospect of universities being exempt from the Act, according to a report from The Daily Telegraph.
— BBC Breakfast (@BBCBreakfast) March 1, 2016
More than just the trivial things
Jon May, the Development Officer for the SPA, told Kettle that the organisation was delighted at the news that revisions of the law would not go ahead.
“The Student Publication Association (SPA) are delighted to hear that the government won’t be repealing the Freedom of Information Act and excited that students’ unions may be included with charities in future revisions,” May said. “Our student journalists have broken big stories using the act and we have an award solely to recognise the groundbreaking and investigative work they do.”
McGrath said student media was incredibly passionate on the subject because of the results of the work.
“We are more passionate about it because we see the direct effect,” McGrath said.
Ultimately, McGrath says, these stories are important and should be told.
“We don’t want to just talk about the trivial things,” McGrath said. “Funny and trivial articles have their place, but it’s important to have serious stories that do effect students sometimes in negative ways and cause controversy. They can have just as interesting and engaging analysis just as the anecdotal stories. This is something we can do well and good journalism can do well.”
What do you think of FOI? How important are reporting these stories, especially in student media? Have your say in the comments section below.