By Poppy Askham
Reflecting on his career in his 2010 memoir, A Journey, former Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote:
“Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head ’til it drops off my shoulders. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop.”
There are many three words to which Blair could have been referring — ‘the Iraq war’, or perhaps ‘Higher Education marketisation’.
Yet it was these three: ‘Freedom of Information’, that brought on this outpouring of self-flagellation.
Whilst the acronym FoI and indeed the Blair anecdote are all too familiar to those engaged in the noblest of all sports, student journalism, they may be a little more alien to the reader with less questionable leisure pursuits.
Put simply, the Freedom of Information Act empowers members of the public to request information from public authorities. Holding the bill up as an emblem of New Labour’s promises of transparency and openness, the policy’s proponents spoke of building a relationship of mutual trust between the British government and the people.
In the decades since, the Act has become one of the most powerful weapons in a journalist’s armoury. In the past year, Palatinate’s tenacious team of news and investigations editors has used the Act to expose the doubling of the attainment gap at Durham University during the pandemic and to reveal the fact that just 54 students followed Covid-19 testing advice.
The team’s original investigations and creative use of data are some of the core strengths that mark Palatinate out as an award-winning student newspaper and represent the cornerstone of our endeavours to hold the University to account wherever necessary.
But much to our frustration, this edition holds relatively few examples of FoI-obtained data, due to the recent intensification of the stone-walling attitude of the University’s Orwellian-sounding ‘Information Governance Unit’.
Our team is well versed in the Unit’s frustrating practices.
The Unit has, for instance, long opted to withhold information for the statutory maximum time period once a request has been submitted, a practice which is not standard across all UK universities and significantly slows down the pace of investigations.
All too frequently, FoIs are sent back with the rejection note “information not held”, only for the information to miraculously turn up after a long and tedious appeal process, but be blocked for yet another reason.
But recently the department has adopted a new tactic: aggregation. It’s a word that strikes fear, or at the very least a sense of deflation, into the hearts of our news editors.
It means that the Unit considers our editors to be “working in concert” and as a result their requests for information can be treated as though they have come from one person. With public bodies legally allowed to reject requests after 18 hours of time has been taken to respond to any ‘similar’ requests, this is deeply troubling. The timer only resets once a quarter, potentially devastating for a fortnightly newspaper.
The problems with this approach are boundless, perhaps the most nonsensical part being that any student can write for Palatinate and that even our editors work independently and frequently in competition with each other. Would the University’s Unit reject any student request if it was suspected to be for Palatinate? What counts as similar? Who draws these distinctions? The answer, it seems, is the Unit itself.
The Unit has rejected our attempts to raise these objections, defending its position by arguing that only thematically similar requests are aggregated. This argument falls apart when the breadth of the categorisations is considered.
As a result of the University’s new aggregation tactic we are currently unable to request information relating to: “demographic information about the make-up of student body and staff”, “staff/student misconduct” and most vague of all, “financial information”. These seem deliberately blunt, broad and myopic groupings. With such huge fields for investigation closed off, the scope of our journalistic endeavours is severely hampered.
We are left with limited avenues in which to fight this. It will take 20 working days for the University’s Unit to even acknowledge emails appealing their aggregation decisions, while a plea to meet with the department’s officers has been unsuccessful to date.
Moreover, referring concerns up the chain would likely result in a protracted battle. OpenDemocracy recently reported that individuals raising complaints to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the body tasked with holding public bodies to account over FoI protocol, face wait times of up to a year.
Responding to our attempts to appeal aggregation decisions, the Unit explained that in the last year “a large volume of FOIA requests has been submitted to the Public Authority” and that a “30% increase in requests by year end” is expected.
It is clear that the Information Governance Unit is overstretched, but why should the under-resourcing of the department be used as justification for effectively blocking the capacity for students to report? Surely the question is one of under-staffing and under-funding, not of restricting the student voice?
The frustrations of the Palatinate newsroom are a microcosm for the much larger concerns of the wider journalistic community.
Earlier this month more than 100 journalists signed a letter organised by OpenDemocracy which warned that the FoI system is being undermined by obstructive behaviours of government departments and the under-resourcing of the overloaded ICO office.
This comes a year after the “Clearing House” revelation that exposed a government blacklist for handling FoI requests from journalists.
It is clear that something needs to change. Too much power is given to public bodies to interpret the law and too few resources are granted to the ICO to hold obstructive bodies accountable.
In the short term, we put our faith in the power of the patient and at times, dogged, perseverance of journalists, both student and professional, to keep with the story and overcome the legislative shortcomings. The investigations in this edition, carried out largely without the aid of FoIs, are testament to the resourceful minds and tenacity of our editors and reporters.
But to ensure true freedom of information, a radical re-evaluation is needed both within Durham University’s Information Unit and in the statute book.
Image: Rosie Bromiley