Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Pushing the boundaries of government secrecy

The Leader of the United Kingdom House of Commons, Chris Grayling, must be in the running for the most remarkable statement to come from the Government of David Cameron so far when he attacked journalists for using the nation’s Freedom of Information Act (FoI) to generate stories.

Mr Grayling said that journalists who researched stories through FoIs were “misusing” the legislation.

He said the Act was not designed for journalists; rather it was meant to be used by ordinary members of the public who wanted to understand the workings of government.

His comments have understandably brought on a storm of criticism, with the UK Society of Editors describing them as “ridiculous”. However, they can also be seen as the tip of the iceberg in an insidious campaign by those in power to keep increasing amounts of what they do away from public scrutiny.

In Britain the Government has set up an Independent Commission on Freedom of Information which many see as the first step to watering down FoI legislation.

Its war against the media was highlighted just a week ago when Junior Minister James Wharton urged his constituents to boycott their local paper, the Northern Echo because of its supposed anti-Government bias.

Australia now has the most secretive Government since World War II with information on its operations against refugee boats on the high seas constantly withheld “for operational reasons”.

Recently Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton refused to give information on the Government’s actions in the case of a Somali woman in asylum-seeker detention who alleged she had been made pregnant by a rapist. He said he would not comment “to protect her privacy”.

This was even though it was the Government’s treatment of her, rather than the woman herself, that was being investigated.

However, the media must take part of the blame for this deteriorating relationship. Cut-backs in the face of declining advertising revenues and falling circulations mean there are fewer journalists to do the work of holding those in authority to account.

As a result more statements — from governments, local authorities, police and private organisations — are being taken at face value. Highly-paid ‘media managers’ are having an increasing influence over what we read, hear and see.

Journalists who do question what is being presented are often met with a blank wall. Organisations know that a ‘no comment’ or simply a refusal to return calls will probably see off the over-worked questioner forced to move on to easier subjects that will quickly fill column centimetres or air time. 

I do not believe corruption is endemic among the Governments of either the United Kingdom or Australia. Compared to the goings on in some less fortunate countries their ethical standards are high.

But to suggest there is no role for the media to investigate or question their actions, or as Mr Grayling suggests, leave it to individual members of the public to find out what is going on, is to undermine a cornerstone on which our democracies have been established.   

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