Are the Press vexatious?

Under s.14 of the FOIA, a public authority can refuse a request if it is deemed vexatious according to the criteria set out in the Wikeley judgement.[1] For the most part these have applied to individuals whose request “vex” the public authority and waste the public resources or distract it from delivering services to others. What is clear is that the requests are not considered to be in the public interest. Instead, they appear to abuse it. Until the recent decision, the section has never been used to refuse a request for the media.

We have to remember that as we sow, so shall we reap.

When Parliament reviewed FOIA, s14 was one of the areas that authorities and practitioners asked for clarity. They wanted the government to allow them to use it to deal with applicants who appeared to be wasting the organisation’s time and money. The media reported these stories. At the time, the authorities argued that the regulator (the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)) approach made it difficult for authorities to know when and how they could refuse these requests. The media echoed these points.[2] From the evidence presented, one would imagine that organisations were brought to their knees by vexatious requests.[3] One can imagine Chief Executives and Leaders haggard and weary from the burden of requests wandering the town halls calling out like King Henry: “Will no one rid us of this vexatious request?”[4]

Like the RIPA shoe, FOIA is on the other foot and it hurts.

Like the RIPA, the s.14 also applies to journalists. However, it would take a very brave public authority to use s.14 with a journalist. This is the first time. Most organisations fear bad publicity. The public sector is no different. However, s.14 is the law and can be used if the request fits the criteria. Yet, most organisations will find a way to accommodate a powerful requestor such as an MP or a journalist. We can see this in number of media officers and the way organisations vet freedom of information requests for how the media might use them.[5]

The media vs the Met: Whose public interest wins?

Unlike nearly any other public authority, the MET has an ability to withstand media pressure. Most organisations recognize that the media’s work in the public interest, on behalf the public, might trump their own. The MET, though, is different. Their ability to resist media pressure might explain why they used the section to refuse the request. Journalists may not like the outcome, (what applicant enjoys having their request refused as vexatious) but it is the law. One wonders if they would prefer the law did not apply to them. Will the law be changed to cater to their use of the public interest? Who decides which public interest, the Police or the Press, will triumph? If RIPA is a guide, it is likely that a change might occur.

Will this be in the public’s interest?

 

[1] In Information Commissioner v s Devon County Council & Dransfield [2012] UKUT 440 (AAC), (28 January 2013) , Judge Wikeley recognised that the Upper Tribunal in Wise v The Information Commissioner GIA/1871/2011) had identified proportionality as the common theme underpinning section 14(1)and he made particular reference to its comment that ‘Inherent in the policy behind section 14(1) is the idea of proportionality. There must be an appropriate relationship between such matters as the information sought, the purpose of the request, and the time and other resources that would be needed to provide it.’ (Accessed 1 March 2015)

The ICO guidance on dealing with requests under section 14 https://ico.org.uk/media/for-organisations/documents/1198/dealing-with-vexatious-requests.pdf (accessed 1 March 2015)

[2]

On the general issue consider this programme from 2013 http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-complainers/episode-guide

[3] Consider this recent story on frivolous FOIA requests. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-essex-26996027 (Accessed 1 March 2015)

[4] With apologies to Thomas Becket. http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/becket.htm (Accessed 1 March 2015)

[5] Consider this case from Kirklees Council http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/node/47182 (Accessed 1 March 2015)

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
This entry was posted in democracy, journalism, politics, public interest, public opinion and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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