Paul Dacre Launches Passionate Defence of Press Freedom

Associated Newspapers editor-in-chief Paul Dacre has launched a passionate defence of the Freedom of Information Act, arguing that proposals to water it down are part of an “unprecedented attack” upon the freedom of the press in the UK.  

In a 4770-word letter responding to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information’s call for evidence , Mr Dacre said the media would see any watering down of FOI as “yet another move by an authoritarian political class to restrict their freedom.”

Mr Dacre said: “Today the freedom of the press is under unprecedented attack: through the increasing use of the Data Protection Act by powerful individuals to suppress stories; the abuse of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act by police to expose journalists’ sources; unreformed and punitive Conditional Fee Agreements; and the establishment by the Government of the Royal Charter and discriminatory exemplary damages to force newspapers into state-controlled regulation.

“The media as a whole will inevitably see any erosion of FOI as yet another move by an authoritarian political class to restrict their freedom.”

Mr Dacre makes clear in the letter that he is writing in a personal capacity, also drawing on his experience as chairman of the 2009 30-Year Rule Review which recommended that the rule for the transfer of official documents to the National Archive, and allowing of access to them, should be replaced with a 15-Year rule.

In the letter, Mr Dacre unpicks arguments for restrictions to the Act such as the “burden” it places on public authorities to comply and and questions the make-up of the commission: “Not one of the five commissioners is a journalist or historian, the two groups apart from civil servants and politicians with the most direct ‘professional’ interest in official records. There is no one who can be said to represent the public, who make the vast majority of FOi requests, or lobby groups and businesses, who are also major users.

“I am convinced the burden, which is not large, is amply balanced by the public interest in the public’s right to know. In an age when the public’s lack of engagement with the political process is a matter of growing concern, the Government should be delighted that every year there are 250,000 requests for information about its workings, 60 per cent of them from private individuals.

“I am dismayed that consideration is being given to putting obstacles in the way of the public finding out how their money is spent. If public bodies believe they are receiving too many FOi requests that is because they are keeping too much information secret. The answer is more transparency, not less.”

Addressing the question of strengthening the Cabinet veto, Mr Dacre said: “Whilst the present system of appeals is cumbersome, and the Cabinet veto must ultimately be subject to the jurisdiction of the Courts, I believe it offers as much protection to the principle of collective responsibility as can reasonably be expected. I would not support placing the decision of a Cabinet minister beyond the jurisdiction of the courts, which seems a very dangerous constitutional departure.”

Writing about the high levels of public usage of the Act since its introduction, Mr Dacre said: “I find it very disturbing that, rather than recognising this as evidence of the need for the Act, and celebrating its success, the Government sees it as a reason for restrictions to be imposed. I have found nothing in the Commission’s Call for Evidence which convinces me that the Act is not working as it should, and ten years is far too soon for a general review. The Act should be left as it is – or strengthened to allow more scrutiny of government.”

Mr Dacre’s response to the commission is available on its website along with other responses from parties including the NMA.