Less than two weeks after 23 journalists signed an open letter to the Scottish Government, criticising its handling of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, the issue is set to be debated in the Scottish Parliament this afternoon (13 June).
The motion that will be debated, lodged on 1 June by Scottish Labour MSP Neil Findlay, reinforces the journalists' complaints that their FOI requests have been poorly handled by officials, who often cited reasons such as not having taken minutes or records from official meetings and thus being unable to provide them.
The open letter, which was published on 1 June on investigative journalism website The Ferret as well as Common Space, a Scottish digital news service, has been signed by 23 journalists across online, print and broadcast titles, including the Guardian, the BBC NUJ chapel, The Telegraph and The Ferret.
The issue has also received cross-party political support in Scotland, with the motion being supported by 12 MSPs across the Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Green and Labour parties.
Rob Edwards, founding member of The Ferret, told Journalism.co.uk that he and the rest of his colleagues are "enthusiastic FOI users", having previously requested information from the government on issues such as CCTV police surveillance and wildlife.
"[At the Ferret], we've encountered many of the problems that are in the letter," he said. In one instance, the government refused to release information about a certain topic because they did not know how much information was recorded or where it was stored, he added.
"All the journalists who have signed the letter have experienced these issues, and it's often delays or refusals to respond, or rejecting requests on tenuous grounds."
The Scottish Parliament is set to appoint a new Information Commissioner over the next few months, as the previous commissioner, Rosemary Agnew, has now left the job.
In an interview with The Ferret in April, Agnew criticised the government's refusal to "engage properly with journalists", pointing out that they were "not abiding by their promises to be open and transparent", Edwards added.
"One of the things we're all finding is that, increasingly, there are meetings between ministers and lobbyists, or ministers and businesses, or ministers and pressure groups, where you'd expect there to be a proper record with things such as minutes and agendas.
"Those things either don't exist or we are being told they're not held under the FOI Act, so there is a real worry that ministers and officials are developing ways of avoiding FOI by not keeping records, making things informal, or having phone calls rather than emails."
The open letter also suggests that, as well as reviewing the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which has been fully inforced in the UK since 2005, there is a need to "introduce a new duty to record information alongside the right to know".
"If you've got a government that makes decisions in the public interest on a daily basis and they don't keep records of those decisions, I'd say that's not just a disservice to the public, it's a betrayal of history.
"To understand how the government makes decisions, we need to know how they were made, who agreed, who disagreed and what was said," said Edwards.
Free daily newsletter
- New platform launches to support investigative journalists in south-eastern Europe
- UK charity turns secondary school students into budding reporters
- Reporting with people, not on them: how The Bureau Local took a story full circle
- What can we do to help independent journalists in authoritarian countries?
- Weekly journalism news update: 'automated journalism', sustainable newsrooms and Newsrewired