Freedom of Information: “Spellbinding Pain in the Butt”

John Rentoul

ac1 260x300 Freedom of Information: Spellbinding Pain in the ButtThere 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 Sutcliffe

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  • creggancowboy

    Under the FOI I found out that 10% of rape claims were false (England & Wales 2011). Ought I to ask about the criminal record of “Charles Lynton”?

  • stonedwolf

    FOI requests are only as good as the statistics the government has. The police might mark 10% of claims to be false, but how is one to be sure the reality matches the statistic?

    It’s not for nothing the crime survey is used in academia in preference to police statistics.

  • creggancowboy

    Reality is that false claims are vastly underenumerated. Kanin’s study showed 41% though admits it could be higher in the US than UK. One copper told me “90% is nearer the mark, real rape is scarce, it is usually a woman getting back at her Ex or seeking attention”.

  • stonedwolf

    One copper told me… Yes. The police. Excellent and unbiased sources of information.

    As for Kanin… it has been discredited as a scientific source.

    Critics of Dr. Kanin’s report include Dr. David Lisak, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Men’s Sexual Trauma Research Project at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He states, “Kanin’s 1994 article on false allegations is a provocative opinion piece, but it is not a scientific study of the issue of false reporting of rape. It certainly should never be used to assert a scientific foundation for the frequency of false allegations.”

    According to Lisak, Kanin’s study lacked any kind of systematic methodology and did not independently define a false report, instead recording as false any report which the police department classified as false. The department classified reports as false which the complainant later said were false, but Lisak points out that Kanin’s study did not scrutinize the police’s processes or employ independent checkers to protect results from bias.
    Kanin, Lisak writes, took his data from a police department whose investigation procedures are condemned by the U.S. Justice Department and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. These procedures include the almost universal threat, in this department, of polygraph testing of complainants, which is viewed as a tactic of intimidation that leads victims to avoid the justice process[11] and which, Lisak says, is “based on the misperception that a significant percentage of sexual assault reports are false.” The police department’s “biases…were then echoed in Kanin’s unchallenged reporting of their findings.”

    Bruce Gross writes in the Forensic Examiner that Kanin’s study is an example of the limitations of existing studies on false rape accusations. “Small sample sizes and non-representative samples preclude generalizability.”

    Philip N.S. Rumney questions the reliability of Kanin’s study stating that it “must be approached with caution”. He argues that the study’s most significant problem is Kanin’s assumption “that police officers abided by departmental policy in only labeling as false those cases where the complainant admitted to fabrication. He does not consider that actual police practice, as other studies have shown, might have departed from guidelines.”

  • creggancowboy

    Stoned, I guarantee I have spent more time in the UK as a political prisoner than you. I will concede Kanin but my original remark remains.

  • stonedwolf

    You’re a UK political prisoner? Do tell…

    PS, I’m not saying false rape claims do not exist – they clearly do – but I don’t think we can assess the ratio with any degree of accuracy because so many rape cases comes down to which party you believe. There can be physical evidence of sex, but that’s not the same as evidence of consent or non-consent.

  • creggancowboy

    Or contributory negligence? Political prisoner? Arrested soon after researching the Daniel Morgan cover up.

  • Vikram Singh

    Shouldn’t Alastair Campbell be standing in a dock at The Hague instead of cackling his vile views on the world to Independent readers. Whatever happened to depriving the evil of their oxygen? Or is there a statute of limitation on defrauding a nation into war I don’t know about.

  • stonedwolf

    Yeah, Private Eye have been banging on about that one for years now.

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