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"Embarrassing" e-mails

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Martin Rosenbaum | 08:25 UK time, Monday, 21 June 2010

People who make freedom-of-information applications are sometimes accused of going on fishing expeditions, submitting generalised queries in the vague hope of coming across some scandal.

FishingOf course, in one sense, any FOI request is a fishing expedition in that requesters never know in advance what they will actually get. But it has to be said that some seem less precisely motivated than others.

Yesterday, the Information Commissioner's Office published a ruling [89Kb PDF] on a somewhat unusual FOI application sent to the Department for Transport. The requester had had what might have seemed like the bright idea of asking the the department for copies of all e-mails in the folders of ministers or their personal secretaries which contained the word "embarrassing".

Whoever the requester was, he or she clearly takes a dim view of standards of literacy in the modern civil service, as the request was extended to include various wrong spellings of the crucial term: "please try one r, two esses; two rs, one s and one r and one s".

The DfT originally dismissed the application as vexatious. But they changed their mind once the requester complained to the Commissioner. The department then gave him copies of four such e-mails. Since, as far I am aware, none of these e-mails has since been given wider circulation, possibly they did not contain anything embarrassing apart from the word in question.

But the DfT still refused to disclose another e-mail, which recorded a communication from an MP on a constituency matter, on the basis that it would be against the public interest. The complainant argued:

If someone has described a matter as embarrassing, the public interest lies for us to see what they consider to be embarrassing and make our own decision as to whether or not they agree.

However, the Commissioner was "not wholly persuaded by this point", according to the decision notice. Nor was he that impressed by the requester's apparent overall strategy:

the Commissioner is not convinced that this request would enable what a public authority considers to be embarrassing to be found. He has particular doubts that a request for any emails in the email accounts of (admittedly senior) individuals within a government department which contain the word 'embarrassing' would, in itself, necessarily uncover matters that were, or were considered, embarrassing to that public authority.

And thus he backed the DfT's argument that releasing the outstanding e-mail would inhibit the free and frank exchange of views. So civil servants may now consider it safe to use the word "embarrassing" freely in their e-mails, however they want to spell it.

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