The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, joined a panel of experts to discuss the ‘future of transparency’ at City University London last night. The panel discussed FoI requests, the value of openness, and what happens when the need for transparency meets obstacles such as privatisation or national security.
Joining the Information Commissioner were human rights activist Helen Darbishire, investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, barrister Robin Hopkins and director of Request Inititative, Brendan Montague. The event was chaired by Linda Lewis, course director of City’s Political Journalism MA.
Christopher Graham made his position clear on whether FoI should apply to private companies carrying out public sector work. He said: “Private companies are increasingly taking on public functions. What seems to be so perverse is that there’s all this talk of transparency, but private companies are outside of FoI. We’ve got to find a way of FoI following the public pound. If you’ve got a socking great government contract that is to deliver a service that would have been applicable under FoI, how can you say this doesn’t apply?”
On the importance of transparency, Duncan Campbell said: “The society we live in is built on a fundamental system of checks and balances. There are competing centres of power – judiciary, executive, legislative, press – don’t trust any of them entirely. In order to make the public service function of these centres of power work, you need scrutiny and transparency. It’s the lifeblood of the multi-headed organism that is 21st century democracy.”
Discussion soon moved on to attitudes towards transparency. Brendan Montague said: “There isn’t a conspiracy of secrecy but there is a culture of secrecy in our country. Recently I was speaking to journalists in Norway who can access cabinet ministers’ emails online. Why couldn’t that be the case here?”
Robin Hopkins said that the biggest thing we could fix for FoI requests is the time frames and speed of turnaround. Brendan Montague pointed out that FoI only has power in the way it is used, and that it is the public who bring it to life. He said: “It’s only through our participation as citizens that we increase the power of FoI. It should be an offence to our mind that this information is not being published. We read about political corruption and think ‘of course’, we read that information is being kept private and think ‘of course’. We need to change that in ourselves. We need to get quite cross about this.”
Christopher Graham ended the night with a comment that one way to improve transparency would be to stop cuts to the Information Commissioner’s Office. He said: “Stop cutting the ICO budget. Over the past three years the very modest grant in aid has been cut and cut and cut.”
Dan Douglas | City Journalism | 23rd May 2013
Original article here
See a Storify of Tweets from the panel discussion, curated by Jess Denham (Interactive Journalism MA)