Our whistle blower's charter

Deborah Hobson

Freedom of information law has proved a useful tool for journalists and media organisations, generating news stories by revealing controversial and at times sensational material which would otherwise have stayed secret (see Freedom of Information advice in The-Latest's Journalism Tips).

Britain's Freedom of Information Act came into force in January 2005, though the long-awaited legislation was passed by parliament five years earlier. The law covers public bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is a similar but not identical law covering Scottish public authorities - the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. Finland brought in its Act on the Openness of Public Documents in 1951, while America's Freedom of Information Act, also known as the Open Records or Sunshine Laws, was put on the statute books in 1966. In South Africa, the Promotion of Access to Information Act was introduced in February 2000.

These laws enable any person to request information from a public body and have that information given to them, subject to certain exemptions. Factual background material relating to policy decisions, such as statistics or analysis, have also been used by journalists to provide weight to stories and shed light on the decision-making process.

Big news stories sourced from British Freedom of Information requests have included:

  • How the government's leading law officer, the Attorney General, changed his mind over the legality of the invasion of Iraq
  • How the Metropolitan police realised that their commander Sir Ian Blair's decision to block an independent inquiry into the shooting of innocent civilian Jean Charles de Menezes left them open to accusations of a cover-up
  • How City of London police officers have been accepting dinners and gifts worth thousands of pounds from members of the Scientology religious cult
  • How MPs can claim thousand of pounds to furnish their second homes with luxury items from what's been dubbed the John Lewis List, named after a fashionable department store
  • How 32 local authorities were forced to disclose the amount of money paid to fat cat City brokers by investment managers on behalf of employees' pension funds

The-Latest has successfully used the Freedom of Information Act in a number of exclusive stories which include our exposé of an NHS hospital cover-up over lost patient files (see Alarm as NHS files go up in smoke, community news section http://www.the-latest.com/nhs). And our report of government department profligacy in Guess what? The Home Office is broke: http://www.the-latest.com/guess-what-the-home-office-is-broke-0.