There was a heartening story in the Leicester Mercury a few days ago. Journalist David MacLean praised Lynn Wyeth, Leicester City Council’s Head of Information Governance for her promotion of transparency (and her assistance in giving him “countless stories over the past two years”). The article illustrates how, when it comes to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA), a relationship of mutual respect and openness between a public authority and the media can help both sides.
Contrast this with an item on Newbury Today’s site this morning. This is a follow-up to a recent series of FOIA requests made to police forces around the country. It appears that the Press Association asked for information relating to thefts of police property. I don’t know exactly what the request said (I don’t have a Press Association log-in, and the main release is unclear) and it has been variously reported as being specifically about thefts from police stations or simply thefts in general from the police (I rather suspect it was the latter, but if anyone can clarify this, I’d be most appreciative).
The Daily Mail highlighted that Thames Valley Police (TVP), with 90 incidents, “tops the list of crime-hit forces”. No public authority likes to be “top” of any of these type of lists, and the Newbury Today article shows TVP hitting back
…force spokesman Craig Evry…explained that the majority of the thefts took place from “trap cars” and added: “Thames Valley Police is one of several forces to use ‘trap houses’ and ‘trap vehicles.’ These are used in areas which police believe are being targeted by burglars or thieves.“When criminals break in, they could be recorded by cameras or any property taken may be remote tagged or marked with ultraviolet inks allowing police to quickly track it down. It’s a useful criminal reduction and evidence tool and criminals should realise that the home or vehicle they’re breaking into might be covered by hidden cameras. Hopefully using this technology might make them think twice about committing a crime.”
One initially wonders, why didn’t they say that in the first place? Well, they say they did:
The FoI response included the caveat: “Please note that of the above thefts recorded, all but six involved ‘trap vehicles’ deployed specifically to be targeted by offenders.”
Mr Evry said: “They simply misinterpreted the data.”
Most, if not all, FOI officers have been here. A request is received for “All the information on X”. Now, you hold this information, but, taken in isolation, it might be misinterpreted, so you add an explanation, or a disclaimer. However, for whatever reason, the disclaimer is lost in the bustle of preparing a story for print, and suddenly your nuanced explanation of the information is lost, and you are being lambasted in the press.
In fairness to the Press Association, it seems that the background details to their original story might have included TVP’s disclaimer. For instance, the Oxford Mail, writing three days before the Daily Mail, referred to it in their article. So maybe the fault is only with those media organisations who misinterpreted, or chose to misrepresent, the Press Association material. Nonetheless (and I can speak from bitter experience here) journalists may want to ask themselves whether the helpfulness of FOI officers might be inversely related to the likelihood of their getting shafted as a result of that helpfulness.