3 examples this week show how you can still tell important stories based on Freedom of Information requests even when you don’t get any results.
In the first, a national story, 54 FOI requests were sent to mental health trusts. 6 could not say how often any form of restraint was used, and:
“Half of them could not provide details of how often their staff had used the controversial and dangerous face-down technique.”
Reporter Mark Easton chose to focus his story not on the use of restraint by the half which did provide details, but rather, as the headline reads: The troubling secrets of England’s mental hospitals.
Knowing what institutions should be doing is important here: Easton notes that:
Under the Mental Health Act 1983, institutions are statutorily obliged to “document and review every episode of physical restraint which should include a detailed account of the restraint”.
The second story is a local one, from the Liverpool Echo, and is more straightforward: Police block Hillsborough horse burns information request tells it succinctly, but again the background to this is key to its newsworthiness:
“injuries to the horse [were] claimed to have been caused by Liverpool supporters caught up in the initial pre-match crush outside the ground … Some campaigners believe questions over the apparent delay in medically assessing the horse, and the lack of a publicly-available vet’s report, could be answered by information in the South Yorkshire Police archive.”
A quote from a spokesperson is needed to explain why the refusal is news:
“If this kind of request can be turned down it makes you wonder about the release of the rest of the information they hold on other issues.”
Finally, Full Fact interrogate the basis behind Government claims about health tourism. It is a factcheck piece, not a news report, so the style is more opinionated (a news story might report on reaction to the refusal, for example from campaigners, experts or opposition politicians).
But their FOI request is refused. After explaining why they submitted it (the Government is proposing to spend more money on vetting patients, but it isn’t clear if that will save more money than it costs) the article reports on why the refusal is significant:
“This isn’t good enough.
“If any Government Minister discloses information in Parliament that informs public debate about an issue, they should be expected to explain where it comes from. The FoI Act itself places the requirement on holders of information that:
“regard shall be had to the particular public interest in the disclosure of factual information which has been used, or is intended to be used, to provide an informed background to decision-taking.”
“As things stand, the Health Secretary is left free to introduce claims into the debate over NHS treatment while providing no means for anyone to check where they come from.”
And, following news convention, it ends with ‘what happens next’:
As such we’ll be requesting a review from the DH under the terms of the 2000 Act so that the information can be disclosed.
For more on ‘bad data’ stories see my earlier post in the Online Journalism Blog.