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Welcome to Open Secrets

Martin Rosenbaum | 14:19 UK time, Thursday, 18 May 2006

Psstt! Wanna know a secret?

Well, I hope you’ll learn the occasional secret in these pages from time to time, but also more than that.

This blog is about freedom of information, or FOI as we know it in the trade. FOI laws which came into force in 2005 give everyone the right to see information held by the government or public authorities, unless there’s a good reason (supposedly) for not releasing it. It even applies to the BBC – partly, anyway. If you want to know more about FOI, click here.

It’s a valuable tool for journalists, who have been able to get all sorts of information that was previously kept secret. You can see some of the stories the BBC has obtained through FOI here.

FOI can be fascinating for what it reveals about the workings of the public sector, from the dramatically important to the surprisingly bizarre. I write about some of the things that we – or others – have found out, and some of the things that we haven’t found out too. Using FOI can also be an exasperating or entertertaining business, and some of that experience is reflected in this blog as well.

It’s also your chance – to comment on what I’m saying or doing, to tell me the subjects you think we should be chasing, or to report on your own experience of FOI.

Comments   Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 07:29 PM on 29 May 2006,
  • Leroy wrote:

I really like the format and hope that this will become an informative and thought provoking investigative tool, please keep it up.

The real reason that I am writing to ask whether you are as keen as I am to find out what is the cost of not only a Government cabinet reshuffle but what is the cost of changing a department name. Lets take for instance in the latest reshuffle? Prime Minister Tony Blair reorganised his Cabinet on Friday 5 May, believing that this would re-establish a sense of trust in his government especially after the bloody nosebleed that he received from voters in the local elections. We not only saw the movement of cabinet personnel but also the dethroning of the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and a subsequent re branding of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), headed up by a new Secretary of State Ruth Kelly. Such changes bear a cost which I do not doubt that the taxpayer will have to pick up. I have read that this new Department’s, sorry this latest reshuffle, has pulled directorates/subjects/personnel from other Government Department’s to the DCLG.

What is the cost:
• Of a new logo?
• Changes to letter heads?
• Changes to domain and core IT infrastructures?
• Movement of not only Ministers but inherited subjects and personnel?
• Changes to action plans, Business plans, etc?

Remember since 1997 this same Department been re branded from DETR to DTLR to ODPM. I kind of see reshuffles similar to someone trying to reinvent the wheel. We know that a wheel is round but with constant meddling will this make it any rounder? No doubt a change is good but how many times can you re brand a product to fool the masses?

  • 2.
  • At 07:34 PM on 29 Jun 2006,
  • jenny wrote:

Hello Martin.

The FOI can be a powerful tool for people who aren’t journalist as well, unless they’re interested in the workings of public sector broadcasting. I value what you are doing with the FOI, but the larger picture reeks of double standards.

  • 3.
  • At 03:10 PM on 24 Nov 2006,
  • JG wrote:

Could you tell me how to get hold of a copy of the Balen Report?

  • 4.
  • At 05:54 PM on 24 Nov 2006,
  • Martin Rosenbaum wrote:

You will have to wait and see what the High Court says and what happens after that.

  • 5.
  • At 07:01 PM on 24 Nov 2006,
  • davespink wrote:

Can you please explain what the Balen report is about and why we are not permitted access to it? It would make a good topic for this blog don't you think?

  • 6.
  • At 01:46 PM on 16 Mar 2007,
  • VEREONICA JORDAN wrote:

The Balen report is a report the bbc has spent thousands of our pounds on trying to prevent it's release.
Showing the bbc for what it has become a tool for the middle east with it's biased reporting and double speak regarding Israel.

  • 7.
  • At 04:12 AM on 31 Mar 2007,
  • Aussietruthseeker wrote:

Not so long ago the BBC wrote a great article about Dr Tim Betts - he's the epilepsy specialist who goes out on a limb by treating patients with a combination of drugs and alternative therapies.

Well - he is missing! Have the big drug companies finally 'done him in' perhaps his University lost some funding?

Why do visionaries like Dr Tim Betts disappear?

Sounds like another good story for the BBC.

  • 8.
  • At 10:52 PM on 05 Apr 2007,
  • Amanda wrote:

If anybody does know what has happened to Dr Tim Betts and where he is then it'd be great to know because I was one of his patients and he disappeared on me!!

Any news welcome!

  • 9.
  • At 01:58 PM on 12 Jun 2007,
  • Jonathan wrote:

I don't care what the High Court says - its ruling is on a technical issue.
Why can't the tax-paying public, who paid for the report, see the Balen report?
Why won't the BBC publish its content?
It's morally indefensible.

  • 10.
  • At 01:18 PM on 27 Sep 2007,
  • Michael wrote:

Just for clarification, can you check something with the BBC's FOI dept.?

Does their FOI response letter template already have "Your request falls outside the scope of the Act..." in it, ready to be printed, signed, and sent off when they misapply the Act... again?

  • 11.
  • At 10:02 AM on 18 Oct 2007,
  • Michael wrote:

How interesting that, since my last post on the 27th September, the ICO has issued two decision notices (a week apart) in respect of the BBC.

In both, the Commissioner rules that the BBC have misapplied the Act when responding that the requested information falls outside the scope of the Act ("info held for journalism, literature or art purposes" etc).

See:
Case Ref. FS50102206 - 1/10/07
Case Ref. FS50070468 - 8/10/07

I wonder how many more similar decisions in respect of the BBC we will see published in the coming months...

  • 12.
  • At 12:22 PM on 18 Oct 2007,
  • Michael wrote:

Re. my last post earlier today: I confess to making a mistake.

The ICO has actually issued FIVE decision notices in the respect of the BBC. In addition to the two above, the Commissioner issued 3 more notices on the 8/10/07.

Yes, you guessed it! In these cases the Commissioner also ruled that the BBC was wrong to claim that the requested information was held for the purposes of Journalism, Literature or Art and thus fell outside the scope of the Act.

See:
Case Ref. FS50147860 - 8/10/07
Case Ref. FS50070466 - 8/10/07
Case Ref. FS50074344 - 8/10/07

Is the BBC not embarrassed at their persistent ineptitude regarding handling requests for information? Martin, are you not slightly uncomfortable at the hypocrisy of it all? You and your fellow journalists at the BBC make good use of the Act to obtain 'stories' from other public authorities, yet folk might as well try and get blood from a stone than get information from the BBC.

My post of 27th September (re. the BBC's response template) was sarcastic, but in light of recent developments I'd quite like to know if, maybe, it might just be the case...

Michael -
I don't feel uncomfortable about the charge of hypocrisy. As I've said before, any organisation subject to FOI may turn down some of the requests it receives. That's no reason why those working for that organisation should not put in FOI requests.

  • 14.
  • At 06:58 PM on 18 Oct 2007,
  • Michael wrote:

Thanks for the response, Martin - though you seem to have misinterpreted my post. I was not suggesting that you and your colleagues should cease making requests (that's your statutory right, and I trust you to keep exercising it!); I was suggesting that the BBC should be more 'pro-disclosure' when handling requests, and not apply the 'journalism, literature and art' clause in such a broad-brush manner.

When one sees the kind of requests that the BBC refuses on such grounds, one can only wonder what is going on.

I'm not just referring to the recent glut of ICO notices - I have made requests to the BBC myself, all of which have been refused on 'journalism, lit or art' grounds. I'm FOI Officer for a large public authority, and have personally handled around 1500 requests. Since Jan 2000 the ICO has been involved twice, and only upheld one complaint on a technical matter (refusal notice did not include details of our internal appeals procedure) - the point is (other than unashamed boasting!), I know how that Act works, and I understand it. I know that the information I have requested of the BBC in the past would NOT be held for the purposes of journalism, lit or art. Whilst nothing in life is certain (except death, taxes, and the BBC license fee!), I'm extremely confident that the Commissioner will agree with me - when he finally gets around to deciding!

I find it concerning that the BBC's FOI team are so unclear about what information is actually covered by the Act (insofar as it applies to the BBC). Is it genuine ineptitude, or a more sinister 'wall of silence' approach? Either way, it's concerning.

I'm not criticising you personally - I'm pro-FOI and enjoy your blog. My 'beef' is with the BBC's transparency and openness. It seems highly ironic to me that the BBC's FOI blog (or 'wob') is called 'Open Secrets' - use of the word 'secret' seems strange to me. Anyway, perhaps your FOI team should stop by here once in a while, they might learn a thing or two.

  • 15.
  • At 10:39 AM on 19 Oct 2007,
  • Michael wrote:

Just noticed a typo in my last message - it should, of course, read: "since Jan 2005"

Apologies for any confusion!

  • 16.
  • At 04:11 PM on 19 Dec 2007,
  • Tim's relative wrote:

Dr Tim Betts retired from medicine some time ago due to ill health. I will let him know that people are concerned as to his well being.

Cheers

  • 17.
  • At 08:14 AM on 26 Dec 2007,
  • sooraj wrote:

there are two things that one needs to consider ...the benifit of learning things that are not meant to be learnt and checking the flexibility of the law by using it where it is not needed..hw can ensure that the fourth estate will not use this as an instrument to promote their circulation ?

  • 18.
  • At 04:50 PM on 09 Jan 2008,
  • eva wrote:

I have been so worried about Dr Betts health.
Please let me know how he is. and if he has a contact address.
Thankyou Eva

  • 19.
  • At 07:13 AM on 23 Jan 2008,
  • sarahlou wrote:

I too would like to know if Dr Betts is well. I would like to send him a card as he was the best Doctor I have ever had!

  • 20.
  • At 01:00 PM on 08 Feb 2008,
  • ruth lauder (ex bartolo) wrote:

Hi, re the great and good Dr Tim Betts. He and were friendly for many years although we met only at epilepsy conferences and communicated by e-mail. Since he retired I haven't been able to be in touch and would dearly like to, once more, before I myself retire in September this year.
I would be very grateful if 'his relative' could pass my message on to Tim, and I do hope he gets in touch so many of us miss him.

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