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Society joins call to investigate FoI ‘clearing house’

Posted on: February 9, 2021 by Ian Murray

The Society of Editors (SoE) has added its name to an open letter calling on the government to investigate allegations that Freedom of Information (FoI) requests are being filtered through a ‘clearing house’ operation.

The letter, also signed by a number of current and former national newspaper editors, follows an investigation carried out by openDemocracy which revealed details of a secretive unit inside Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office

A shadow cabinet minister has accused the unit, known as the ‘Clearing House’, of “blacklisting” journalists. It is also said to have blocked the release of sensitive FOI requests.

Joining openDemocracy’s call for transparency, the editor of The Times, John Witherow, called the situation a “disgrace” and Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, criticised government “time-wasting on legitimate FOI requests”, saying it stands “at odds with its global commitments to press freedom”.

They join the editors and editors-in-chiefs of openDemocracy, The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, Financial Times and Daily Mirror, as well as Paul Dacre, chief executive of Associated Newspapers, Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, and Lionel Barber, former editor of the Financial Times, in signing openDemocracy’s letter demanding swift action to protect FOI.

The Society of Editors last year wrote to Michael Gove expressing its concerns over the allegations and calling for an end to any practices that went against the principles of open government.

At the time 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.

The letter, created by openDemocracy, calls for an investigation into the controversial Clearing House unit. It also demands new measures to speed up FOI requests and greater support for the Information Commissioner’s Office, which oversees FOI.

Expressing his support for openDemocracy’s initiative, Times editor John Witherow said: “Transparency is not a privilege or a gift bequeathed to a grateful citizenry by a benign government. It is a fundamental right of a free people to be able to see and scrutinise the decisions made on their behalf.

“That message has failed to get through to the government of Boris Johnson, which seems hell-bent on making it harder. This is not only a disgrace, but a mistake.”

Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner also called for more powers for the Information Commissioner to investigate breaches of the law on FOI: “Given the huge amounts of public money now spent with private contractors, a clear commitment to greater transparency and a well-funded Information Commissioner are manifestly in the public interest,” she said.

The Cabinet Office has insisted its responses are applicant-blind and compliant with data protection law.

Some 89 journalists, press freedom campaigners and lawyers have signed the letter to William Wragg, chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and Julian Knight, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

The full list of 89 signatories to the letter:

  • Mary Fitzgerald, Editor in Chief, openDemocracy
  • Katharine Viner, Editor in Chief, The Guardian
  • John Witherow, Editor, The Times
  • Emma Tucker, Editor, The Sunday Times
  • Chris Evans, Editor, The Daily Telegraph
  • Roula Khalaf, Editor, The Financial Times
  • Alison Phillips, Editor, Daily Mirror
  • Paul Dacre, Editor-in-Chief, Associated Newspapers, former Editor, Daily Mail
  • Alan Rusbridger, former Editor in Chief, The Guardian
  • Lionel Barber, former Editor, Financial Times
  • Veronica Wadley, Chair of Arts Council London; former Editor, Evening Standard
  • David Davis MP
  • Alex Graham, Chair of the Scott Trust
  • Ian Murray, Executive Director, Society of Editors
  • Sir Alan Moses, former Chair, IPSO
  • Anne Lapping CBE, former Deputy Chair, IPSO
  • Philip Pullman, author
  • Baroness Janet Whitaker
  • Baroness Tessa Blackstone
  • Ruth Smeeth, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship
  • Daniel Bruce, Chief Executive, Transparency International
  • Daniel Gorman, Director, English PEN
  • Menna Elfyn, President of Wales PEN Cymru
  • Carl MacDougall, President of Scottish PEN
  • Rebecca Vincent, Director of International Campaigns, Reporters Without Borders
  • Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary, National Union of Journalists
  • Sian Jones, President, National Union of Journalists
  • Jodie Ginsberg, Chief Executive Officer, Internews Europe
  • John Sauven, Executive Director, Greenpeace
  • Rachel Oldroyd, Managing Editor, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
  • Jonathan Heawood, Public Interest News Foundation
  • Anthony Barnett, Founding Director, Charter 88
  • Chris Blackhurst, former Editor, The Independent
  • Suzanna Taverne, Chair, openDemocracy
  • Philippe Sands QC
  • George Peretz QC
  • David Leigh, investigative journalist
  • Robert Peston, journalist and author
  • Peter Oborne, journalist and author
  • Nick Cohen, journalist and author
  • David Aaronovitch, journalist and author
  • Michael Crick, journalist and author
  • Ian Cobain, investigative journalist
  • Tom Bower, investigative journalist
  • Aditya Chakrabortty, Senior Economics Commentator, The Guardian
  • Jason Beattie, Assistant Editor, the Daily Mirror
  • Rowland Manthorpe, Technology Correspondent, Sky News
  • Cynthia O’Murchu, Investigative Reporter, Financial Times
  • Tom Warren, Investigative Reporter, BuzzFeed News
  • Christopher Hird, Founder and Managing Director, Dartmouth Films
  • Meirion Jones, Investigations Editor, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
  • James Ball, Global Editor, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
  • Oliver Bullough, journalist and author
  • Henry Porter, journalist and author
  • Peter Geoghegan, Investigations Editor, openDemocracy
  • Margot Gibbs, Senior Reporter, Finance Uncovered
  • Lionel Faull, Chief Reporter, Finance Uncovered
  • Chris Cook, Contributing editor, Tortoise
  • Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism, Kingston University
  • Mark Cridge, Chief Executive, mySociety
  • Dr Susan Hawley, Executive Director, Spotlight on Corruption
  • Helen Darbishire, Executive Director, Access Info Europe
  • Miriam Turner and Hugh Knowles, co-CEOs, Friends of the Earth
  • Mike Davis, Executive Director, Global Witness
  • Silkie Carlo, Director, Big Brother Watch
  • Natalie Fenton, Professor of Media and Communications, Goldsmiths, University of London
  • Dr Lutz Kinkel, the Managing Director of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • Scott Griffen, Deputy Director of International Press Institute
  • Granville Williams, Editor, Media North
  • Alison Moore, journalist and editor
  • Tim Gopsill, Former Editor, Free Press and the Journalist magazine
  • Dave West, Deputy Editor, Health Services Journal
  • Dr Sam Raphael, Director, UK Unredacted and University of Westminster
  • Leigh Baldwin and Marcus Leroux, SourceMaterial
  • Vicky Cann, Corporate Europe Observatory
  • Barnaby Pace, Senior Campaigner, Global Witness
  • Lisa Clark, Scottish PEN Project Manager
  • Nick Craven, journalist
  • Caroline Molloy, Editor, openDemocracy UK
  • Jenna Corderoy, Investigative Reporter, openDemocracy
  • Jamie Beagent, Partner, Leigh Day
  • Sean Humber, Partner, Leigh Day
  • Harminder Bains, Partner, Leigh Day
  • Thomas Jervis, Partner, Leigh Day
  • Oliver Holland, Partner, Leigh Day
  • Merry Varney, Partner, Leigh Day
  • Daniel Easton, Partner, Leigh Day
  • Michael Newman, Partner, Leigh Day
  • Sarah Campbell, Partner, Leigh Day