Vir Cantium

I'm right, you know …

I Can Do Journalism, Me

Well, maybe not quite, but it is one of those alternative careers that in a parallel universe I might have found myself in. I was of the generation where the ‘fad’ subject was computer studies, shortly before environmental science became all the rage. Nowadays it seems to be media studies. I do remember some advice that was given to an aspiring hack that if one is looking at a serious career path in journalism, then it’s not Media Studies that one should take as a degree subject but English.

All that was before the dawn of Freedom of Information Act requests (‘FOIs’). This does seems to be the lazy journalist’s best friend, as it appears to eliminate the tedious job of actually following up enquiries. I happen to know that my own local council receives over 500 FOI requests per year now, with a significant proportion from the media. The only annoying aspect of this, from the receiving end, is that the majority of demands would be happily answered in reply to a polite request, rather than the bureaucratic and bolshie “I know my rights” approach of an FOI.

The last year or so has seen a spate of FOIs regarding pay and expenses (unsurprisingly) but one of the first requests received, just after the act was introduced, was about the amount spent on tea and biscuits – I kid you not – from one of the local ‘papers. Cutting edge investigative journalism was clearly not dead.

It may be though, that this is another means of sorting the serious journalists from the media studies kiddies, since the best stories – MP’s expenses being an obvious example – require a long pursuit of the FOI rights through the various appeal processes following refusal by the enquired, thus testing the professional doggedness of the determined hack.

FOIs are clearly no use for working on breaking stories, as there is a four week response period. However, less time sensitive issues can be investigated using the device. When I say “investigated” it sometimes seems more like ‘enter the information you get back into a spreadsheet, work out a few averages, identify the outliers and slot the numbers, together with a suitably outraged comment from an appropriate pressure group, into the draft article you wrote four weeks ago’. Job done, Editor happy, lunch awaits. Cynical? Me? As if.

Every now and again, though, an FOI does the rounds which flags up what could turn into the top of one day’s news agenda. Some are obviously shots in the dark, but who knows? Perhaps this recent one, might turn up something amusing (though not, I would d*mn well hope, from my council):

From: DataNews [mailto:newsdesk@datanews.co.uk]
Sent: 31 March 2010 14:03
To: DataNews
Subject: FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT REQUEST
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT REQUEST
In the period 1.4.06 to 31.12.09 please state on how many occasions your
council has paid a Feng Shui consultant or paid for a staff member to
attend a Feng Shui course?
For each of these occasions state when the payment was made, who the
payment was made to and provide documentation you hold which explains
either the advice that was provided or the nature of the course that was
attended. Also provide me with a cost of the advice or the course.
Yours sincerely,
Matthew Davis

Matthew Davis’ DataNews agency works largely via FOI requests and he has pursued some worthy lines of enquiry in the past, but Feng Shui? The 20 working day deadline on this one expires on 30th April … just in time for the local elections, or in good time for a nice silly season story.

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