Monday, 11 November 2013

Society of Editors conference Freedom of Information panel notes

Rather than live tweeting the Society of Editors conference, I thought it might be easier to blog it and have a written record to mull over. So these notes are taken live, and then tidied up and posted via Blogger email.

Freedom of Information session with:

Heather Brooke, FOI campaigner
Shami Chakrabarti, Director of Liberty
Christopher Graham, Information Commissioner
Andrew Vallance, Air Vice Marshall, DPBAC

HB: I was used to doing public record based journalism in the US - police logs, witness statements etc - and when I came to UK I realised all those records were pretty much sealed.
It was incredibly difficult to get official documentation from government and liberate public information. The MPs expenses case was a wake up call; I had done something almost identical in Washington state and all that was required was to ask the Clerk of the House to see politicians expenses receipts.
When I made that request in Britain I was basically laughed out o the building and it went to a five year legal case and ended in the High Court.
Information that should be in the public domain that is suppressed and it creates a sort of black market for that information.
We should be fighting for a sort of First Amendment - the press in the UK is in a weak place now.

SCh: Article ten of the human rights convention is our equivalent of the First Amendment. That guarantees free expression and sometimes it will be in conflict with Article eight regarding right to privacy but not often.
It is rare for a journalist to try to put words in my mouth or spin words. It does happen occasionally and when it does it is shocking.
As director of Liberty I have to try and calibrate all the different important values - absolute transparency would lead to people dying. I find it interesting that politicians become upset about phone hacking and so they farm it out to a judge. It was terrible but what about the Snowden revelations - invasions into people's privacy on an international and industrial scale.
The same politicians upset about hacking are angry with the Guardian for exposing this surveillance.

CG: As a former journalist I don't like the 'press as a victim' which comes across on occasions like this. You can't say freedom of the press excuses everything and yet sometimes it comes across like that.
We are now busy drafting guidance re data protection act and there will be workshops for journalists and the general public next February.
It is not about amending the law. It is not a statutory code. There is a lot in it about what the act is not. The is a lot of myth busting and I hoe that will be a contribution to responsible journalism

AV: My input is on national security and our interest has been to ensure the media did not inadvertently damage nations security.
The DA optics system requires engagement from the media. The editor needs to know the consequences of what is being disclosed to make a decision.
We work hard to ensure that editors know where they are going and what they are doing and don't shoot themselves in the foot.

AV: Snowden I have no time for because if you steal files on an industrial scale you have no knowledge what they contain. When you are talking about hundreds of thousands of files he does not know what they contain or the implications. He went into the
unknown and the consequences may not be appreciated.

HB: You could say he was a whistleblower and who does that information belong to? Things are being classified not in the public interest and we are finding public interest is becoming the private interest.
The digital revolution has changed everything and now that is hitting the heart of power, and they do not know how to deal with that - it is freaking them out. Things done in the name of national security are dangerous to national security. Like breaking encryption on the internet. The NSA did that, not Snowden.

CG: When Snowden and the encryption story started running I started taking an interest. We find the US are much further down the track in investigating this. (He would not say if he was concerned by this or not, despite being pressed hard).

SC: There is a difference between someone trying to be a responsible whistleblower and a dangerous data dump - there may be a moment when you become aware of unethical things by your employer when you have to take action. If you do, you have breached your duty of confidence to your employer but you attempt to do some sifting and you either do it yourself or you go to people you trust to do it. That is what has happened with Snowden and Greeenwald.

AV: We are not concerned about embarrassment but we are concerned when people wilfully damage security. They are exposing us on a grand scale to terrorists... Immediate risk, no. Consequential risk, yes.

CG: We need to be considering whether the arrangements we have are adequate for the 21st century. We have the intelligence and security committee who say "this is ok" (SC cut in and said this was the watchdog that never barked.)
HB said the committee wanted no challenge to be made and had a 'who are you to judge' approach. She described the Guardian has conducting highly responsible journalism: "I was vey upset with the reaction of some other newspaper. You need to put these divisions aside, it is one time when you should support each other."
"The intelligence services act like the priesthood in the Middle Ages, who acted like they had a hotline to God".

Asked why newspapers had to have the same opinions SC said that strategically it was sensible not to turn on fellow journalists "when fear stalks the land".
HB said if you want to criticises the content of the story that's one thing but to go after them around the right to publish that's another and it's undermining.
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