Written evidence from the National Union of Journalists (FOI 26)
Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee
The Cabinet Office Freedom of Information Clearing House inquiry
- The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is the representative voice for journalists and media workers across the UK and Ireland. The union was founded in 1907 and has 30,000 members.
- The NUJ represents staff and freelances working at home and abroad in broadcasting, digital outlets, newspapers, news agencies, magazines, books, public relations, communications, and lens-based journalism.
- The NUJ welcomes the opportunity to respond to the parliamentary committee’s call for evidence and inquiry into the Cabinet Office Clearing House. The NUJ is not affiliated to any political party and has a cross-party parliamentary group.
- The union and its members are committed to campaign to safeguard and extend the remit of the existing FOI legislation. Media workers want to see an increase in public access to information rather than any further restrictions, obstruction, or deterrents (financial or otherwise).
- Many NUJ members have used FOI legislation at some stage in the course of their work and the vital importance of FOI is widely recognised across the media industry. There are lots of great examples of media reporting and quality journalism that has been underpinned by information obtained by using FOI requests. Stories ranging from MPs’ expenses to the Grenfell fire have relied upon using the FOI Act.
- We are therefore urging the select committee to help to safeguard this vital public tool for accessing information and holding powerful individuals and organisations to account.
- Over the years the NUJ has organised various campaigning initiatives when the authorities have threatened to dilute existing FOI law. For example, in 2015 the government appointed a panel to review the legislation. The union worked in partnership with the campaign group 38 Degrees and mobilised more than 30,000 people to respond to the public consultation and oppose the planned restrictions to FOI legislation[i].
- At the time Chris Grayling MP claimed that journalists “misuse” the FOI Act and so The Guardian collated 103 examples, from just 6 months of media stories, to prove his claim was factually incorrect. All 103 stories were in the public interest and contained information published from FOI requests. They covered issues such as domestic abuse, gross expenditure, wrongdoing, spying, child abuse, cybercrime, dodgy landlords, inflated bonuses and much more[ii].
- Since then, journalists have continued to utilise the law and a further example of that work in the public interest is how openDemocracy has been researching, challenging, and reporting on the actions of the Cabinet Office Clearing House[iii].
- The Clearing House can perhaps be interpreted as an operational mechanism developed after the authorities failed in their attempt to restrict FOI using other means in 2015. The NUJ believes the Clearing House is the latest method employed in an attempt to attack the public’s right to access information.
- From what we know about the Clearing House, it is not in line with the intentions set out in the FOI legislation and it also goes against the government’s stated commitments to global media freedom.
- We believe this Clearing House operation is undemocratic and should be disbanded. Senior politicians should not be allowed to create systems to monitor or police public information and journalists in this way.
- In February 2021 the NUJ expressed concerns about the illegitimate monitoring of journalists by the Clearing House and the union remains concerned that there is a risk of journalists being put on an effective blacklist[iv].
- The NUJ has called on journalists in the UK to submit subject access requests, in order to establish how the government has been centrally managing FOI requests from the media, and what information the Cabinet Office are holding about journalists.
- We have not been able to access all of the relevant information to understand the full picture. We believe the select committee will be able to do this, given its unique ability to call witnesses (both the politicians and officials) and request the relevant evidence including the policies, guidance, other documents and correspondence.
- We would like to see the committee get to the bottom of how the Clearing House is operating and establish just how media requests are being monitored and treated. Once we have this clarity it would be much easier to make recommendations for improvements and reform in line with the existing legislation.
- Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, has said: "At the core of all public interest journalism is the urge to search out information, shine light in dark corners, scrutinise and hold power to account. The media industry is united in backing a campaign to expand the right to information and secure greater transparency in public life. We want our government to be less secretive, not more.
- "That is why the existence of a so-called Clearing House, profiling requests, stonewalling requests and essentially thwarting and blocking journalistic scrutiny is so disturbing and outrageous. The government's response to date has been woefully lacking.”
- At the NUJ’s sovereign decision-making conference in May 2021 the union agreed new policy on FOI. Various motions were debated at the event and the union agreed to campaign to secure changes to the FOI legislation that extend the powers of the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) to include fines for persistent non-compliant public bodies.
- The NUJ also committed to press for new provisions so that public bodies should be made to apply a public interest test when deciding on disclosure, and the ICO should no longer close cases that are still ‘live’. In addition, public bodies should be compelled to respond within 20 working days as was intended in the legislation.
- The union also endorsed the recommendations in the Information Commissioner's 2019 report: “Outsourcing Oversight? The case for reforming access to information law”, which makes the case for extending existing FOI legislation, and the union backs calls for freedom of information legislation to be extended to private companies that deliver public services.
- We believe the select committee has the power to fully investigate the Clearing House and its impact on both the public and the media, and then suggest recommendations that would help to identify and curtail any abuse of power that restricts the existing legal entitlements.
- Lastly, we would like to see the ICO sufficiently funded and resourced, its remit should be extended but the ICO needs to be accountable to the public via parliament, like the Scottish Information Commissioner is, and the way that other UK regulators and oversight bodies are.
- Essentially, the NUJ wants to see FOI legislation upheld and extended; we want to see levels of government transparency and public accountability increased.