Freedom of Information: “Spellbinding Pain in the Butt”
There was a good exchange on the Freedom of Information Act between Alastair Campbell and Chris Mullin at a Chatham House event last month. This was the subject of Campbell’s second disagreement with Tony Blair during the conversation (the first was over whether Labour did enough in its first parliamentary term).
Campbell said that FoI was a “pain in the butt” but on balance a good thing.
Chris Mullin: Tony Blair said that the Freedom of Information Act was one of his biggest mistakes. Do you agree with him?
Alastair Campbell: No, I don’t think it was. I think it has been a pretty spellbinding pain in the butt.
CM: From the point of view of anybody in government.
AC: It’s a legitimate goal of government to be an effective government. If freedom of information is about citizens genuinely finding out about the decision-making process and things that affect them and interest them and the services that are there on their behalf, that would be great. But the truth is, I don’t know what the figures are, but if you analyse the demands for information that are done through the FoI, the vast bulk are basically about trying to mess up the government and bugger it up and waste its time. Do we really need to know how many toilet rolls have been used at Chequers? It’s funny. The truth is, you could have put down a question on that as an MP, and I’m not sure that we get that much more out of the system. Within government it has made people much more reluctant to have conversations and commit them to paper that they should be having.
CM: That is one of the great difficulties. Someone puts forward an options paper which inevitably includes the more extreme options and the less extreme options – you can be sure that the only one that will be reported in the papers is the most extreme option. ‘Government considers murdering all firstborns.’
AC: Right. But I still think on balance it is a good thing. But I think it’s only going to become a very good thing that will genuinely benefit us if both politics and the media make a jump together and say, let’s not just do all the trivial stuff and let government really genuinely want to open things up. But it’s a tricky one which I don’t think has worked terribly well.
CM: One of the results is that ministers tend to communicate by back-channel now, a channel that they hope won’t ever see the light of day.
AC: One of my great rules of strategy is that you have to write things down, and that includes the differences of opinion that you have. You have to thrash them out on paper, not least because in government you can’t always get people together to have meetings. If it’s a foreign policy thing, you do need to involve ambassadors and people who are living abroad and people who are not necessarily on the end of a phone line all the time. The way to do that is to circulate all the thinking, as deep and wide as you want to go, as widely as you have to. But again, as you say, if the media are always going to pick on the one thing – and of course it’s not just the media, it’s what the opposition do to the government, the government do to the opposition. If they’re always going to go on to the point of maximum damage, so-called, then we don’t really have a proper debate. So I think actually within government, people shouldn’t go down the route of not committing to print. They shouldn’t do this sort of ‘let’s put it on a Post-it’ rather than write it down. I think that leads to bad government. I think government should just kind of go with the flow. The momentum is toward openness, there’s no doubt about that. I wrote this piece in The Times today and one of the points I made is that governments that are still trying to stop – like the Chinese and others – still trying to shut down the networks… they can have some success in doing that but the momentum is all against it. That’s partly what the Arab Spring was about. I think we should celebrate it for all sorts of reasons.
CM: So on balance, a good thing.
AC: Yes, I think so.
Photograph by Justin SutcliffeTagged in: alastair campbell, contemporary history, foi, New Labour
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