News

‘Secretive Govt FoI clearing house is alarming’: SoE

Posted on: November 25, 2020 by Ian Murray

The Society of Editors has acted with alarm at reports that the Government is operating a secretive ‘Clearing House’ to vet Freedom of Information (FoI) requests and share personal information about journalists.

The report by openDemocracy claims some journalists face being blacklisted in an attempt by the government to avoid the requirements under the FoI legislation.

In its special report ‘Art of Darkness,’ openDemocracy sets out how the unit based in Michael Gove’s Cabinet Officer instructs Whitehall departments on how to respond to information requests, acting as a clearing house for as many as 70 departments and public bodies.

Ian Murray, executive director of the SoE which ran its own successful campaign to prevent government from emasculating FoI in 2015, said if proved this was an extremely sinister turn of events.

“Freedom of Information is vital to any functioning democracy and if this government or any other seeks to subvert that basic right of UK citizens to know what is being done in their name then we are all in big trouble.

“That this is coming from a government where the Prime Minister is himself a journalist makes this all the more disturbing. We had hoped that Boris Johnson was on the side of a free press holding politicians to account.

“We will be seeking urgent responses from the government to the validity of these claims and if true to demand that Freedom of Information legislation be adhered to not just in name but in spirit and that the sharing of private details of journalists ceases immediately,” added Murray.

In revealing its findings, openDemocracy said: “Freedom of Information (FOI) requests are supposed to be ‘applicant-blind’: meaning who makes the request should not matter. But it now emerges that government departments and non-departmental public bodies have been referring ‘sensitive’ FOI requests from journalists and researchers to the Clearing House in Gove’s department in a move described by a shadow cabinet minister as “blacklisting”.

“This secretive FOI unit gives advice to other departments “to protect sensitive information” and collates lists of journalists with details about their work. These lists have included journalists from openDemocracy, The Guardian, The Times, the BBC, and many more.

“The unit has also signed off on FOI responses from other Whitehall departments – effectively centralising control within Gove’s office over what information is released to the public.”

Responding to openDemocracy’s questions about the Clearing House, a government spokesperson said:

“The Cabinet Office plays an important role through the FOI Clearing House of ensuring there is a standard approach across government in the way we consider and respond to requests. 

“With increasing transparency, we receive increasingly more complex requests under Freedom of Information. We must balance the public need to make information available with our duty to protect sensitive information and ensure national security.” 

Earlier this year, Number 10 was criticised after it barred openDemocracy from COVID press briefings. The Ministry of Defence was also subsequently accused of ‘blacklisting’ DeclassifiedUK after the department refused to provide comment to the investigative website.

The full report at openDemocracy can be read here.