You’ll see stories based on freedom of information requests (FoIs) all the time, but what are they and how can you use them?
The Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2000 and forced public bodies (read: organisations that are funded by the public purse) to become more accountable by letting individuals find out information about them.
An example of a great – and well known – FoI is the MPs expenses scandal that rocked public confidence in the transparency of Westminster.
Looking closer to home – well, campus – was the revelation that the University of Sussex paid £50,000 in legal fees in an attempt to suspend five student protesters.
Universities and funding bodies (HEFCW and HEFCE) are FoI-able, but as students’ union are independent charities, they aren’t subject to the Act. If you’re a member of one, though, you should look up how to request information as a member – as many unions want to let students know how they operate.
Great stories often start with an “I wonder how much/how often a public body does something”. For example (insert self-promotional klaxon) a conversation held in the pub of “I wonder how many planes have been hit by fireworks?” became a national newspaper story by asking the public body in charge of airplane safety (the Civil Aviation Authority, CAA) to detail all firework-related incidents reported to them.
A good tip is always to make sure you ask the right body – the most appropriate organisation – and to think in advance of asking whether they might hold the data you need.
The above is a very brief guide on how to make an FoI request. For more details on the Act, FOI guru and SPANC speaker Matt Burgess has written a must-have book: Freedom of Information: A practical guide for UK journalists.
If you want to ask a public body for information there are two ways you can go about it. For a guided walkthrough, the whatdotheyknow.com website is valuable help for beginners, but it’s worth remembering that anyone can see what you ask, so others can easily steal your story.
The website is also a really valuable resource to see whether your question has already been asked – and for story inspiration!
For the more advance FOI-using journalist, foi.directory can provide you with the email addresses for most UK FoI departments, or the most appropriate contact at organisations.
A few tips for getting the most out of your FoI requests:
- Make sure you’re very clear and specific
- Remove any bias or emotion from the request
- Specify if they don’t have the information, is there any alternative information you’d like
- Specify if the request is quite large, what to do if it goes over the 16 hours limit.
Note: The SPA’s Freedom of Information competition winners will be announced at 6pm on Saturday. See if you made the shortlist here!