Monday, September 05, 2011

Campaign responds to debate about tobacco company's use of FOI

The freedom of information request made by the tobacco company Philip Morris to the University of Stirling for information relating to a survey on the smoking habits of teenagers has received a great deal of media attention. It has been extensively covered by The Independent and was discussed on a number of radio shows last week.

An article by Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, published in The Independent defends the "applicant blind" principle of the Freedom of Information Act and suggests that the threat of disclosure may not be as severe as researchers fear:
Are tobacco companies abusing freedom-of-information laws by asking for the raw data obtained by academics studying teenage smoking? Research funded by a cancer charity trying to reduce smoking is being sought by a giant tobacco company keen to recruit users to its lethal products. Not surprisingly, the requests are highly contentious. But is the threat as severe as it seems?

A problem for Stirling University's Centre for Tobacco Control Studies is that our FOI laws are designed to be "applicant blind". Decisions depend on whether information can safely be made public – not whether it should be released to the specific requester, however much it may be abhorred.

That principle is important. It means that an authority cannot refuse a request because the applicant is opposing its policies, criticising its competence, challenging its decisions in court or, in the case of an opposing political party, trying to replace it in government. It cannot withhold complex data because it claims the requester lacks the ability to understand it – or withhold from a campaigning journalist what it hands over to a pliant hack.

...The researchers have argued that if they are forced to hand over the information (presumably even in anonymised form from which subjects could not be identified), funders will be reluctant to back them, other academics will not share data with them and teenagers will refuse to be interviewed in future.

If this is true, then a specific exemption in the Scottish FOI Act may apply. This allows information collected during a continuing programme of research to be withheld if future reports are planned and disclosure would substantially prejudice them. The exemption is subject to a public-interest test. Other exemptions, such as breach of confidence, may also apply. This means the "catastrophe" the researchers warn about may not be imminent at all.
David Goldberg, a spokesperson for the Campaign for Freedom of Information in Scotland has also had a letter published in The Herald:
The battle for freedom of information is ongoing, sometimes on fresh fronts (Ian Bell, The Herald, September 3).

Fundamental FOI principles are worth restating.

First, requests should be treated as applicant (and motivation) blind. The implication of Mr Bell’s article is that Philip Morris International’s request should be refused because PMI are hateful poisoners. But, if that approach were adopted how long would it be before anyone is refused by an authority which finds their views dangerous or merely unacceptable?

Secondly, information should be disclosed unless it would be substantially damaging to make it public, regardless of who requests it. If Stirling University is not exaggerating what it says would be threatened by disclosure, and can demonstrate that, then the university may be able to satisfy various exemptions, including maintaining any confidences owed.

If, on the other hand, the university are exaggerating their case, the information would have to be disclosed, and rightly so.

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