Fobbing off with FoI?

Now here’s a curious approach to media relations. Hyperlocal news site VentnorBlog has been told by the Isle of Wight council chief executive, Steve Beynon, to use the Freedom of Information Act to find out the answers to questions about a broken lift at the Botanic Gardens. VB raised several issues ahead of a delegated decision on whether to spend £220,000 on a new lift, scheduled for next week.

VB reports that the chief exec responded:

As these are quite detailed questions and an immediate response is not possible I will ask that these questions are treated as a Freedom of Information request. The relevant officer will be in contact shortly.

And here are the VB’s questions:

  • Why does an urgent decision “needed to be made” on this lift when it’s been known about for ten years?
  • At a time where the council is cutting back on expenditure from all departments, how does it justify spending £220,000 on a new lift?
  • Why hasn’t the council maintained “the fabric of the Visitor Centre” at “an appropriate level” for ten years?
  • Who at the council will take responsibility for this information being known about for ten years but not acted on?
  • Which senior director at the council will take responsibility for the loss of apparently hundred of thousands of pounds over this period?
  • What action was taken against the contractor or architect when it was originally discovered that the list had been fitted incorrectly?

Benyon’s response raises the question of whether a council is obliged to reply to a media’s request for information, or can put them off with Freedom of Information and its 20 day response period. Whatever the case, re-directing to the FoI service doesn’t appear in this recent advice for council media relations issued by Local Government Improvement and Development:

…[T]here are key points to effective reactive media relations including:

  • responding to the journalist in full by their deadline or giving a ‘holding statement’ until a full response can be given
  • being helpful, polite and positive
  • never saying ‘no comment’, as this can sound as if the council has something to hide
  • if there is a major hostile enquiry which other media may get hold of, share it with the team and work out the line to take
  • ensuring any statements to hostile enquiries are cleared – and send them in writing
  • building up a set of ‘experts’ across the council who can brief journalists directly
  • ensuring the appropriate council spokesperson is available for interview and is fully briefed
  • making sure officers and members are aware of media guidelines and media protocol
  • building up facts and figures and background information for big stories
  • monitoring response times and cuttings to evaluate how effectively the enquiry has been dealt with.

I’d be interested to hear from other local news journalists who may have encountered similar problems. What advice do you have for the VentnorBlog?

This entry was posted in freedom of information, journalism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Fobbing off with FoI?

  1. Obviously, I don’t know how Isle of Wight Council operates but my main concern about the ‘treat this as an FOI’ stance is that questions posed by a journalist to a press office are constructed in a very different way to questions posed under FOI.

    If you do a search through Google News for ‘Freedom of Information’ (the way I often compile FOI Friday), you’ll normally find two or three similar examples where councils or public bodies try to dodge tricky questions by pushing them on to an FOI officer. Sadly, the guidelines you’ve listed are just that – not laws.

    If it was me, and the advice I give reporters in this situation, is to decide whether it’s worth publishing the fact the council is appearing to delay the release of information – as VB has done. I’d also suggest approaching the cabinet member/senior councillor responsible for this area directly and see what they make of it. And there’s probably mileage in the fact that turning a press request into an FOI instantly makes it more expensive for the council to deal with – at a time when they are supposed to be doing things more cost effectively.

    Good luck!

  2. Sally Perry says:

    Thanks Judith for highlighting this and David for your response. We did approach the Cabinet member (also deputy leader) on this matter as we felt that a response separate from that of the non-political workers of the IWC was reasonable to ask for.

    He referred us to the response from the chief exec, which was this,

    “The issue to which you refer will not generate any different responses from either a managerial or political perspective so there is no need to direct the same questions to the cabinet member or myself and we will respond with the information and comment necessary to answer your questions.”

    He also says, “We suggested the FOI route as this is a time logged and tracked approach guaranteeing you a response within a particular timeframe.”

    An article just published on the cost of the council bi-monthly magazine is another example, we asked for a breakdown of costs in July. Received this week after nudging but only the last three months instead of the five years requested.

  3. Pingback: What to do when you’re told ‘put in an FOI for an answer to that.’ « David Higgerson

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