As is always the case with our Cats sessions with John this was very eye-opening and interesting because of the content and the broad subject tackled and the information I gleaned from it.
I now know that the Freedom of Information Act gives you the right to access recorded information held by public sector organisations and it can be used by anybody, not just journalists.
We learnt about a website called https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/ which will help people to make Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and that the royal family are actually exempt from the FOI act.
Organisations can turn you down for various different reasons, usually cost is the main reason for doing this or if a person makes too many requests. The maximum cost for a FOI request is £450 or if it’s central government it rises to £600, beyond that they will turn you down.
Some sensitive information isn’t available to members of the public but an organisation MUST tell you why they can’t give some or all of the information you requested, they also might ask you to be more specific so they can provide you with JUST the information you need.
You can either write to, or email organisations directly with a FOI request.
You must not make trivial requests or make a disproportionate amount of requests in your name because then you will get turned down.
We use the FOI act to get information that you can’t normally get from local or central government. I also learnt that you have to be realistic about how much information they’re actually going to give you.
They do have to respond within 21 days but that doesn’t mean they have to give you the information you’ve requested then. Also make sure that the information you’re requesting isn’t already out there.
We have to be clear and straightforward and don’t be using a bad attitude, be specific and don’t deliberately fish for information.
Another advantageous thing to do is to get to know information officers and be polite when making a request and don’t disrupt local authorities by sheer weight of requests or the volume of information needed.
It seems to me that the effect of this act on me as a journalist is that it allows me to communicate facts of public interest to the public so I can be more effective as a journalist and keep the public informed on matters of interest to them such as local or central government, the emergency services and the armed forces as long as it is recorded and not controlled by a private organisation.
As a journalist I now know, after this lecture, that the Freedom of Information Act is a very important tool for me, not just as a big source of stories but, used correctly, a very important tool in the public interest.