In his blog, David Higgerson recently commended the Mail on Sunday for its use of the freedom of information act to scoop a story about the employment of illegal immigrants in various public sector roles.
In his post, he referred to Roy Greenslade who had been critical of the mail for making an initial FOI request that was so broad and speculative it could reasonably be referred to as ‘FOI fishing’.
Their disagreement about the use of the Freedom of Information Act raised questions about how speculative FOI requests ought to be and whether the sensitive information journalists can gain from them can be misused to manipulate readers.
No one would dispute the FOI is an essential tool for the journalist to obtain the kind of information that otherwise might be spun or suppressed, but facts need to be placed in context for readers to be able to judge them fairly. When the Mail made their recent request, they did so with the aim of gaining further proof of the ‘problem’ of immigration in Britain, and clearly from their perspective they succeeded. But whether this information reflects the scale of disaster the Mail have suggested is debatable.
Placed in context, the information obtained through the Mail’s FOI request reflects a relatively small sample of public sector organisations that failed to identify their prospective employees adequately. In the hands of the Mail however, the information becomes evidence of political incompetence, and of Government’s failure to protect national security and curtail immigration.
In essence, Higgerson is right to defend FOI fishing. For better or for worse, as the Mail proved, it sometimes leads to the most newsworthy results. But it would be false to assume that a speculative fishing trip that comes back with a newsworthy catch is automatically the work of good journalism. There is a danger that the information found on these trips may end up just as spun by the papers as it would in the hands of Government PR. And, at the risk of sounding hopelessly idealistic, that’s not really the point of the act is it?