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Ex police chief and journalist concur on need for easier access to data

Posted on: August 26, 2020 by Mariella Brown

A former police chief has said journalists should get easier access to data under the current system of Freedom of Information requests.

Nick Alston, previously Essex Police and Crime Commissioner, spoke of his concerns in a podcast with Archant investigations reporter Charles Thomson (pictured) about the investigation into a Shoebury paedophile ring.  

Alston told Archant’s podcast “Unfinished: Shoebury’s Lost Boys” that it would be much better to see data in the public domain “from the get-go”.

“Seeing the hoops that journalists have to jump through to get Freedom of Information requests and the bureaucracy around answering that, it just seems to me to be largely wasted effort,” Alston said.

As Essex PCC in 2016, Alston had been “instrumental” in the battle for transparency by securing a review into the 1989/90 paedophile ring before he left his role in the police, listeners were told.

Podcast host and reporter Thomson told the SoE that if only more public officials shared Alston’s passion for transparency, our democracy and public services might be far healthier.

 “The UK’s restrictions on access to information are outrageous and leave American journalists agog. Nick Alston rightly says that we have a deeply entrenched culture of secrecy and are far behind best practice,” Thomson said.

Alston had told the podcast that the UK for a whole host of reasons has grown up with a “default position of secrecy in government”.

“At one stage in my career, I was seconded to the British embassy in Washington and you see that there are other ways of doing government. You can do government where you can ring up anybody and speak to anybody and you can get at data much more easily,” the former police chief said.

Thomson, whose five years investigating the Shoebury case for the Yellow Advertiser newspaper won awards, explained how the UK’s restrictions widely hinder investigations.

“There is a stark difference in transparency between the UK and, for example, the US – particularly in regard to the justice system,” Thomson told the SoE.

“In America, journalists can easily access complete police investigation files and trial records – thousands of pages. In the UK, extracting even a few pages can take months or years of arguments and legal challenges and even then, our extreme GDPR rules wipe out crucial details, such as the identities of witnesses, making it near impossible to investigate potential corruption or miscarriages of justice. 

“In the podcast, I recount various reasons why information on the Shoebury paedophile ring has been censored. They range from claiming that releasing violent paedophiles’ criminal histories might cause their relatives to become mentally ill, to arguing that any information which describes a police tactic – even if that ‘tactic’ is just knocking on somebody’s door and asking them questions – must be redacted, or else it might teach criminals how to avoid detection. Essex Council claimed it would take ‘many hundreds of hours’ to redact a 142-page report on alleged abuse by its own staff, and claimed there was ‘no public interest’ in releasing it.”

The Unfinished podcast was recently nominated by Press Gazette as one of the top journalism podcasts of 2020. Listen here.