Information Commissioner — very slow responses and a bias towards councils during lockdown (and at all times?)
Getting information from the council can be very slow. FOIs are meant to be answered within 20 working days but I still have some FOIs that are outstanding now for over a year.
The council ran one consultation for a too-short length of time to be officially called a consultation, for a project we couldn’t read the official report about and they wanted us to fill out the local plan consultation without reading the Arup report that advised them about a certain area — the Western Harbour. I have written about this before [link] but it’s useful to note that access to information is not given and is not a given.
The council paid £90,000 to gather information about what residents and the public in general were saying specifically about the mayor on Twitter. I discovered this in December 2019, wrote about it in February 2020. I put in a subject access request to find out what information the council held about me and they refused. In September 2020, the ICO told Bristol City Council that they had to fulfil my request. The council wrote and told me they would answer my subject access request but had identified 3.5gb of information so it would take some time. By November 2021 they still have not sent me any information.
Two issues that come up with this are
- Timeliness of news. When is news new and how long before it no longer has any purchase?
- The obstructive force of local councils and other government departments and officials. This plays into how journalists need to maintain some form of impartiality and friendliness even with communication officials.
There is an asymmetrical relationship at times between officials and journalists. The government/council officials can be rude, unhelpful, aggressive and defensive and yet the journalists have to maintain some form of politeness.
One part of this is about time. Journalists who have been in the job long enough see administrations come and go. New administrations come in and get reports written up [see Bundred but this is not isolated] about how bad the previous administration handled things. They then go on to handle things just as badly until the next administration gets voted in and they do the same.
Aggression in this current administration is particularly marked but it’s not only seen in the mayor but also in the staff at the council, and not only the comms team.
In one way, it’s handy because citizen journalists are perhaps not impacted as much by having access to public information. They don’t get the press releases or the zoom calls.
This then brings us back to how much the public information/official information serves to indicate to the public that the journalist has the authority to be writing about any of the things they do.
The other point about news is that there is a seeming bias towards simplicity (Hallins). One factor that reproduces this need is the staff cuts and the need for reporters at regional papers to write about many things and often without leaving their desks. The turnover is quite high, and the latest changes at Reach Plc, for example, show a propensity for centralising news and all local papers covering some of the same topics but occasionally with a regional slant.
One reason given to me by an editor of a regional magazine for why he couldn’t publish my article about the mayor’s faith advisor was that it was too complicated for their readers.