Living in a Stalinist blackout
The Times, Thunderer 11 August 2006
By Heather Brooke
The Information Commissioner thinks that journalists should be imprisoned for up to two years for paying private detectives to obtain information. This same commissioner took almost two years to fudge a decision on the release of the Attorney-General’s advice on the Iraq war – more than a year after it had been leaked. And that’s one of the more optimistic examples of how long it takes reporters to access official information legitimately.
No wonder British journalists resort to nefarious means to get information that in other countries is freely available. It amazes me that hacks manage to ferret out any hard news in such a Stalinist blackout.
If you think bugging phones is amoral or shady then think about the kind of society that restricts freedom to such an extent that this is the only way a member of the public – journalists have no more rights than you – can get his hands on information in a timely way.
How else can a reporter investigate the Royal Family when it is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, virtually unaccountable to Parliament and all its staff must sign a fearsome gagging order? There is no legitimate way to get facts on the Royal Family. We don’t even know how much taxpayers’ money it sucks up. The cost of keeping the Queen as head of state was £36.7 million in 2005, according to the Keeper of the Privy Purse. But this omits the immense cost of security, tax breaks and income generated from assets deemed to be held for the nation, but that the nation cannot see, such as art in the Royal Collection.
Some say that the Royal Family ought not to be held to public account. Fine. But what about the police, courts and Whitehall? Surely we have a right to know what they are up to? Not so. Criminal and court records, arrest bookings and police incident reports are the bread and butter of American journalism. Such records are used to check facts and examine the truth of official rhetoric. In the UK, all this information is off-limits. Even getting a list of local council restaurant inspections can take almost a year. If such information is suppressed what hope is there for investigating more serious issues?
Don’t mistake the authorities’ crackdown as a matter for journalists alone. When those who are paid to dig out facts find it nigh impossible to do so legitimately, no one else stands a chance.