The Lazy Journalists Tackle Christmas (and other times of joy)


Freedom (to ask questions about nativity plays)

It seems like a lifetime ago that I sat at my computer and drafted a post entitled: ‘The Freedom of Lazy Journalism Act.’

The post provocatively claimed that whilst the FOI act is in general a good thing:

The real problem is that many of the requests we receive are not from concerned citizens but from seriously lazy and, dare I say, incompetent journalists.

I continued:

These so-called ‘journalists’ waste hours of council time (ironically often searching for examples of council staff wasting their time) and never are they actually searching for information or investigating a story.

Instead, they pre-write their stories and then use the FoI Act to trawl for a fact or two that will justify their prejudices or exaggerations.

Now, in hindsight I admit that perhaps I went a little too far (and the post received a bumper crop of comment and criticism) but last week I went out for my bi-annual drink with a few friends who work in FoI and other similarly related fields.

During our catch up I casually asked about how business was going and was told that FoIs were through the roof.

As one of my friends pointed out (and I paraphrase): The citizenry are really learning how to make use of FoIs’ and councils need to get better at pre-empting the requests by putting more information out there in easier to understand formats.

Good advice I thought and so I casually asked about the other FoIs; those from people who I had previously described as the ‘so-called’ journalists. The mood of the room darkened a touch and my colleagues recounted their tales of members of our national (and in some councils local) press who make the life of the average FoI officer a right pain.

Amongst this month’s perpetrators are apparently a wide range of journalists with an axe to grind about Christmas, New year, bonfire night and any other time when people might call fun.

Amongst the list of joy-killing FoIs are:

  • Information about spend for Christmas decorations and lights
  • Schools that will and will not be holding a nativity play this year
  • Information about spend on firework and bonfire displays (including New Years Eve)
  • Information about insurance claims involving snow and ice
  • Information about licences issued for dangerous wild animals (I just thought this one was funny)

Now, I’m not going to repeat my previous rant, as I now realise I was wrong. The Act is not at fault and nor is it causing lazy journalists to exist. That was hyperbole which was mistaken.

Neither am I going to draw wide conclusions from the actions of a small group of people but let me just say this to the small number seemingly obsessed by other people’s enjoyment of life:

‘HAVE YOU NOTHING BETTER TO DO???’

Every council budget is being squeezed and services cut; the Eurozone is about to collapse, the economy is struggling, we have a housing crisis and an unemployment crisis. Local authorities are making any number of controversial decisions every day and staff are losing their jobs and the best you can do is ask about nativity plays and Christmas lights?!?

Are you kidding me?

Rant over.

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15 Comments on “The Lazy Journalists Tackle Christmas (and other times of joy)”

  1. DSO Says:

    Recent FoI, which every Council must have received from certain paper, included query: “Do you have plans to abolish [a particular role]?” Response: “[Particular role] is statutory.” Reply from paper: “You did not answer the question: do you have plans to abolish…” Unsent response: “Do you know what ‘statutory’ means?”

  2. Phil Mason Says:

    Completely agree. The one about dangerous wild animals though (as I work in that dept.) doesn’t waste too much time.

    I read somewhere that it costs an (average) £70 for councils to answer the (average) FOI, often as you say not submitted by the concerned taxpayer, but instead by someone concerned “on behalf” of the taxpayer.

    Multiply that by the number of LA’s in the country (as they are often sent to them all) and you have a significant sum out of the taxpayers purse.

    My answer would be to charge for enquiries (unless they were from a resident of the borough within which the enquiry is made).

    I suppose you might also exempt batch enquiries GENUINELY in the public interest.

    Like you say. The aims of the act are not wrong, but how it is (sometimes) used. “How many times has the union flag been flown on council buildings?” for example is NOT in the public interest, “How many planning applications for affordable housing have been refused / approved last year?” might well be.

  3. Localgov Says:

    Jus for detail purposes, the nativity play FOI asked for a list of every single school in the borough who was planning a nativity play along with a brief synopsis of the plot of said play. Not only was this a clear message that they were searching for a story on ‘political correctness gone mad’ but also an example of the strange things that people think Councils actually know about.

  4. NW Cynic Says:

    Easy to get shot of the nativity one. All schools are public authorities in their own right so the council wouldn’t hold the information! Refer the journo to the council website for a list of LEA schools, simples :o)

  5. J Says:

    And, to add to the misery – the “back office staff” (regarded by the press as being superfluous and who are losing their jobs by the bucket load) are the very people who have historically managed the administration part of information handling and were the people FOI officers used to go to for the responses.

    So the people now bearing the brunt of the barrage of stupid and pointless fishing expeditions (for information that will often never get used because it isn’t “exciting” enough) are not only the few remaining back office staff, but also the “front line staff” supposedly not being affected by the cuts, (but who often now have to do all their own paperwork and information management… )

    Happy Christmas one and all.

  6. benlowndes Says:

    I can understand why you would be frustrated, and I’m not going to defend FoI fishing expeditions, but…

    It’s worth remembering that if councils were completely transparent about what they spent their money on, and published this detail on their website for example, the FoI would not be needed. And you would probably take some of the sting from the headlines as a result.

    If I were still a journalist, I would expect a local authority press office to answer those questions you have listed and provide some context with it. That would also deem an FoI unnecessary. Do you know if their press offices were asked those questions? If they were, they should have provided the answer as there is no good reason to withhold such information (and the FoI will probably demonstrate this). That would save everyone a lot of time, wouldn’t it?

    Transparency is here to stay, like it or not. And those who try to fight it will get themselves into more FoI tangles than those who answer the questions quickly and honestly.

    • Phil Says:

      Maybe so. I work at a unitary authority so fairly large. Our “press office” is soon to be reduced to around 6 people. They can’t answer these things.

      I know of a recent FOI (albeit this time from a resident so not so bad) which resulted in more than 18 hours total front line officers time used to answer.

      I agree FOI is needed to stop public authorities (I’m not singling out Councils) locking up. However I don’t believe the cost of fishing expeditions should be funded entirely by the taxpayer.

      I may work for a council. But I also pay taxes.

      • benlowndes Says:

        I think the limit of time spent on a single request is 20 hours, so it looks like you’re almost spent on that anyway!

        I am not defending fishing expeditions either – but it is not just journalists who go on such missions. I personally don’t think it is helpful to draw a distinction between who is making a (lazy) FoI request, journo or resident, as it will have no influence on whether that request is satisfied or not.

        I work with journalists and members of the public every day. In my experience, if you answer questions honestly (even if this is difficult) and are more transparent about the information you regularly publish, you will reduce the need for FoI to be used.

  7. Cowering Behind Anonymity Says:

    A few points from the ‘other side of the fence’, if you will…

    As a journalist-cum-researcher, I absolutely hate – HATE – frivolous FOI requests as they give us all a bad name. Stuff about ‘how much have you spent on tea and biscuits’ annoys the hell out of most of us as well as you. And then you have the tedious bore-bots at the Taxpayers Alliance (and their churnalist mates at the Express and Mail) who send out the ‘how much money have you spent on global warming/diversity/fun’ requests. I hate the Taxpayers Alliance and I hate the Mail and Express, so it’s very easy for me to hate their FOI requests as well.

    Unfortunately because these people have convinced themselves that every pound spent by local councils must have been in some way misspent – because the public sector ALWAYS misspends money in their view – they then set out to ‘prove’ this on a regular basis.

    I’m acutely aware that council FOI teams have been cut sharply. You’re getting more of these requests partly because of the following reasons:

    – the Taxpayers Alliance has gone into warp drive
    – the FOI is now more understood by more citizens who use it (though probably not for national mass-requests)
    – local papers continue to cut staff and so FOI is an easy route for those who remain
    – the funding cuts have led to considerable interest/concern over their impact, leading charities, NGOs, campaigners and journalists to submit FOI requests to measure their impact. Some of the charities and NGOs work in the sector their request relates to, so they have a better understanding of how to word their request – but non-specialists can end up wording their request badly

    And also in the run up to local elections you’ll have a bombardment as well.

    There are plenty of reasons from my perspective why I would hate to see charging for requests – some altruistic, some self-interested. But from your perspective, you should probably be aware that any move to pressurise the government to introduce charging would probably not do you many favours. If a specific council was found to be pressuring the government to do this, they’d get howls of protest from the local papers (who rely a lot on FOI) and negative coverage on pretty much everything as a result. The national press, plus Taxpayers Alliance, would also go beserk and start turning up the heat on local councils like never before, trying to ‘expose’ all manner of supposed profligacy as an example of why FOI requests – or ‘transparency’ – should remain free. It’d end up more hassle than it’s worth.

    Councils would benefit hugely from putting more, and more easily accessible, data on spending online. Publication schemes tend to (a) produce only headline spending details and (b) don’t always publish material online – plenty of what is covered by these schemes is only available in hard copy. Which defeats the point.

    Ben Lowndes mentions that some of these requests should be directed to a press officer first – perhaps, but I’d hesitate to take a press officer’s word for it, and for detailed requests on spending the data would still take time and money to bring up anyway.

    For those of us covering politically sensitive stories, complex requests can be inevitable. This is partly due to the complexity of local government spending itself, and also due to the need to ‘pre-empt’ any attempted put-down of the data that results. If I put out information as a journalist that is taken out of context in some way, council press officers will be out and about decrying what I’ve reported. So I add extra bits to the request to make sure it gives as much context as possible. This breeds complexity. I sent out an absolute stinker of an FOI request earlier this year (I won’t say which) – it was the most god-awful thing I’ve ever had to write and I actually felt sympathy for whoever was going to have to respond to it. But it was complex because it had to be in order to ensure the data I got back was actually in context – so that I hadn’t ‘missed a bit’ (‘missing a bit’ usually means a follow-up request to plug the gap, which is a nightmare all-round). It probably ate up a load of people’s time, and accordingly I was very patient about getting a response – I didn’t make a fuss when councils took two or three months to get back to me. But we don’t write complex requests for fun – they’re not fun to write, believe me. It’s simply that if we publish something that is taken out of context, you’d be (rightly) complaining about it on this here blog.

    I’ve waffled on enormously now so I’ll wrap up. I don’t really know what can be done about the frivolous, politically-motivated requests about ‘climate change officers’ and similar. I guess if those requests come in repeatedly, just refer new requesters to previous responses?

  8. Jules Says:

    All very interesting. Just a couple of points. If an FOI comes in with FOI stamped all over it, we can’t just refer it to a press officer. And, (and I love our press officers – bless them) if they were asked to deal with them, they would only come back to the very same people to supply the information because as good as they are, they don’t know every minute detail about everything. Finally, I’m not convinved that putting every biscuit expenditure on a web site would stop it all. It would still be simpler for the less motivated hack to send an FOI in.

    • benlowndes Says:

      Jules,

      I was not suggesting that FoIs are dealt with by the press office, although I am well aware that they will often have a role to play in any response that has reputational implications.

      Rather, if the queries were dealt with openly and swiftly in the first place, the journalist would more often than not not resort to an FoI.

    • benlowndes Says:

      I should also add that, if the information is published on the website or is already in the public domain, then the FoI would be a waste of time as it would not need to be looked into. You could point the applicant to the information on your website.

      So, it may be simpler to send in an FoI request than do some digging, but that’s not how it works (and nor should it).

      Publishing the information would go a considerable way to reducing the number of legitimate requests one would get.


  9. […] month is still with us but we enjoyed taking a cheeky look at Freedom of Information requests and particularly enjoyed this guest post about a vote on the thorny issue of council prayers. […]


  10. […] Act and welcome the fact that it has made the public sector more transparent. Other bloggers take a slightly different view over this point, which has led to some healthy debate. But I don’t agree with this tactic. It […]


  11. […] by those on the front line, by the good people at We Love Local Government, who liken the Act to a ‘lazy journalists charter‘. Their view is that it is being abused by journalists and lobby groups who are out on […]


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