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  • What is the “public interest”?

    Posted on October 28th, 2011 admin 1 comment

    Look into my eyes...look into my eyes

    What is in the public interest has always been something of a thorny issue, especially when it comes to its use in Freedom of Information.

    Personally I say thank the Lords (because apparently it was the House of Lords which decided to put the public interest test into FoI) that we have this weapon to set about the Qualified exemptions.

    At the moment I’m involved in two disputes over information at opposite ends of the spectrum, but both hinge on the public interest test.

    The first involves the Cabinet Office and its refusal to reveal documents written by our ex Prime Minister Tony Blair that were sent to George Bush.

    These notes are central to the Iraq inquiry, whose head Sir John Chilcot asked to make the documents public, and when this was refused said the decision was “disappointing”.

    The crux of these documents is whether they confirm the belief among many people that Tony Blair gave his word to the US President that British troops would join the war, before Parliament voted on the issue.

    You can see the history of this request at WhatDoTheyKnow [here], and I’ve blogged about this in the past [here]. The information has been denied me on the basis S.35 (formulation of Government policy), S.36 (prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs) and S.27 (international relations).

    Were our troops sent to war just because Blair had “promised”? Could there be a clearer public interest? The case is now in the hands of the Information Commissioner.

    Headmaster Vic Goddard flicks the Vs at his deputy head. Mr Chips he is not.

    At the other end of the scale some of you may have been watching #EducatingEssex, a horrific fly-on-the-wall documentary about a school in Harlow.

    I watch the show goggle-eyed at the way the show profiteers from seeing children taken into care, getting involved in scrapes with the police, getting pregnant, abusing teachers.

    We are at the end of the series next week and ironically we have seen precious little educating of the Essex populous.

    As a journalist I have to tread incredibly carefully if I do a story that identifies a child, particularly if it is something to do with their schooling – but this programme seems to have side-swerved the regulations in exchange for children grabbing their five minutes of fame. Responsible journalism? I think not.

    So I wanted to know how much the documentary company paid the school for the privilege of being allowed into the school.

    Surprise, surprise, they will not tell me. You can see the full response to my questions [Passmores1]. But they have applied the S.43 (commercial interests) exemption, and yes you’ve guessed it the public interest is not to disclose the amount.

    Amazing that the public interest is in knowing which of his students are pregnant at 15, which of them get taken into care, which of them run away from home – but not how much the school got paid for selling off the pupils’ private lives for the amusement of viewers.

    I’ve appealed this back to the headmaster Vic Goddard – a man who on the show seems to insist in empathising with errant schoolchildren by calling them “mate”. I suspect this case will run and run.

    NOTE: Apologies for being away for so long.

  • Iraq ‘cover up’

    Posted on January 19th, 2011 admin No comments

    Sir Gus: Hands up everybody who thinks I deserve a knighthood.

    Is it me? Why as I get older do things annoy me more, to the point where I can start shouting at the television.

    The latest object of my middle-aged rage is Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell. You’ve probably heard this story already but the details need repeating.

    Sir John Chilcot is the person who was put in charge of the Iraq inquiry, which is investigating Britain’s role in the run-up to and the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.

    As part of his remit to scrutinise the decisions that were made by the politicians at the time Sir John and the other members of his panel have had access to a blizzard of document and information.

    Amongst them are notes of discussions and private memos relating to meetings between Tony Blair and George Bush – which you might have thought were probably quite important.

    So much so that Sir John asked that he be allowed to make sections of them public – particularly as he would be questioning Tony Blair again about the issue on Friday.

    Enter Sir Gus (why are they all Sirs I wonder?) who effectively put a veto on the matter and said the contents must remain secret.

    So we have a Government inquiry where the Government have effectively muzzled the people they put in charge – something they said they wouldn’t do.

    This is what Sir John said about the notes: “The inquiry recognises the privileged nature of those exchanges but, exceptionally, we sought disclosure of key extracts which illuminate Prime Minister Blair’s position at critical points.

    “The inquiry is disappointed that the cabinet secretary was not willing to accede to this request.

    “This means that in a narrow but important area the inquiry may not be able to publish as fully as it would wish the evidential basis for some of its comments and conclusions.”

    It has been disclosed that Sir Gus contacted Mr Blair to seek permission to disclose the contents of the documents.

    Reg Keys, whose son Tom was killed in Iraq, said: “If there is nothing controversial in them, why are they shamelessly covered up?”

    What really bugs me is that it seems like a return to the bad old days before Freedom of Information when if somebody said you couldn’t have something you just had to lump it.

    What if we don’t agree with Sir Gus? What if we think the extracts in the memos should be made public? Why should we protect the former Prime Minister and George Bush, who have both made a mint selling their stories of their time in charge?

    It leaves me with only one thing for me to do, ask for the letters using Freedom of Information rules [here]

     and then if they refuse at least I can complain.