Newspapers are outraged at a cunning new plan by government departments to undermine FOI requests: releasing the information to everyone.
Channel Seven FOI editor Michael McKinnon says the philosophy of disclosure trumpeted by the federal government in its reform to the FOI Act is being undermined by departmental document dumps. He doesn’t necessarily have a problem with the carbon price dump — there were multiple FOI applicants — but he does have a problem when there is only one applicant and documents are made public.
“There is clearly a public interest in journalists doing FOI,” he told Crikey. “Journalists are motivated to get exclusive stories. That’s what we do.”
And News Ltd agrees:
Sean Parnell, FOI editor at The Australian, agrees. He says there is a theory among some bureaucrats that, by releasing document under FOI to everyone, media outlets will be less inclined to submit subsequent FOI applications.
“This is one of the unintended and perverse consequences of the new laws, and specifically the government’s failure to legislate a minimum grace period for applicants to publish their documents,” he told Crikey. “Rather than encourage agencies to freely and proactively release documents, the new FOI regime is allowing Treasury, and anyone else with the ’same day public release’ policy, to control the timing and impact of publication resulting from FOI.”
See, that’s the attitude I’d expect from those who perceive themselves as the “gatekeepers” of the public’s right to know. As if they just won’t BOTHER trying to find important stories and making FOI requests, if they don’t get to plaster “exclusive” all over the top of them.
Is that really true? Is the benefit the public gets from this additional enticement for media companies to spend time and money chasing government departments greater than the benefit it gets from not being restricted to what those media companies choose to reveal to it once that information is not-fully-released? Is the real reform required here to make FOI requests easier and cheaper for anyone to make?
Somehow I doubt that it’s the public interest that’s at the forefront of McKinnon and Parnell’s employers’ minds.