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[FYI] (Fwd) <nettime> Draconian Britain

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Date sent:      	Thu, 25 May 2000 17:46:28 -0500
To:             	nettime-l@bbs.thing.net
From:           	Josephine Berry <josie@metamute.com>
Subject:        	<nettime> Draconian Britain


Four threats to the public's right to know

Bills going through parliament will hinder watchdog role of press and
bolster state secrecy

Freedom of information: special report

Clare Dyer, Legal correspondent
Monday May 22, 2000

Who first exposed the scandal of the high death rate of babies with
heart defects in Bristol? Who warned that cows with BSE could pose a
threat to humans, when the government was categorically denying there
was any risk? In both cases, the early warnings came from the media. A
probing, questioning press is the citizen's prime safeguard against an
officialdom whose natural reaction is to try to hush things up.
Britain's culture of secrecy is buttressed by harsh libel laws and
weak rights of access to official information. The freedom of
information bill, now going through parliament, gives fewer rights to
official information than those enjoyed by citizens of the US, Canada,
Australia, New Zealand and the Irish Republic. In some respects, the
rights are weaker than those under the last Tory government's open
government code. But three other bills well on their way to enactment
with much less media attention also threaten the public's right to
know or the ability of journalists to perform their watchdog role: the
local government bill, the terrorism bill, and the regulation of
investigatory powers bill. The freedom of information bill has drawn
criticism from MPs and peers of all parties, yet ministers have made
minimal concessions and the bill is progressing through parliament in
essence unchanged. There are blanket exemptions for whole categories
of information. Not only are sensitive policy discussions excluded - a
standard exemption under FOI legislation worldwide - but also the
factual information on which policy decisions are based, which other
governments make available to their citizens. Scientific advice, on
BSE for example, opinion polls, and submissions by lobbyists would all
be exempt. Where information was exempt, the new information
commissioner would be able to order disclosure in the public interest,
but a minister would be able to veto the order. Under a late
concession, the veto would have to be exercised by a cabinet minister.
But under Ireland's 1997 Freedom of Information Act, the information
commissioner can compel disclosure on public interest grounds and
cannot be overruled by ministers. The FOI bill covers local
authorities, NHS trusts, quangos and a wide range of public bodies as
well as government departments. Information gathered through
investigations is exempt, even if the investigation is over and
prosecutions finished. That rules out much information about safety
hazards, including the Paddington rail crash, deaths on building
sites, and data falsification by BNFL- the type of information which
has proved a powerful tool in the US for holding careless companies to
account. Police investigations are exempt too, despite the Macpherson
report's recommendation that the police should be fully accountable
under freedom of information laws. Another clause exempts
"commercially confidential" information - the excuse already used by
the government to deny the Consumers' Association information on
pension and endowment misselling. A catch-all clause, which applies to
public bodies as well as government departments, allows disclosure to
be refused if "in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person" - a
minister or official - it would "prejudice the effective conduct of
public affairs". The local government bill will take away existing
rights to information about local authority decision-making. Now, most
important council decisions are taken at open meet ings of the council
or its committees, with council papers available beforehand. Under the
bill, most decisions will be taken by the mayor or leader, individual
councillors with executive powers, or a cabinet of councillors.
Cabinets will be able to sit in secret and only have to publish their
decisions once taken. Councils will be able to take decisions about
housing, social services, and education in much greater secrecy.
People will lose their existing rights to know, which apply only where
meetings are open. They will have no right to know what decisions are
about to be taken or to see reports and official papers in advance.
The terrorism bill puts journalists in danger of arrest, search and
questioning, and having material seized if they cover the activities
not only of organisations most people would regard as terrorist, but
also campaigning bodies, protesters and even workers involved in
industrial disputes. The bill widens the definition of terrorism from
political causes to include religious or ideological causes, and the
definition of violence to include violent action against property as
well as people. Poll tax demonstrators, road protesters or groups
taking action against GM crops would come within the ambit of the
bill. It would become a crime not to report suspicions about certain
terrorist activities, but the definition of terrorism is so wide that
journalists could find themselves expected to inform on a large range
of campaigning organisations or activities. Photographers and
cameramen in Northern Ireland who cover assemblies and funerals could
be forced to hand over film. The bill makes it a criminal offence to
collect information likely to be useful to a terrorist - which could
include politicians' home addresses. The regulation of investigatory
powers bill will jeopardise journalists' sources and confidential
information. The bill will allow the state to intercept email and
telephone communications across private networks, and force the
decoding of scrambled information, for the purposes of detecting
crime, preventing disorder, for public safety, protecting public
health, and even "in the interests of the economic well-being of the
United Kingdom". Law enforcement agencies would be able to force
individuals to hand over encryption keys and passwords needed to
decode encrypted data, and those individuals would be barred from
telling anyone else, including an employer, about the demand. Those
who lose or forget their password would risk a jail sentence of up to
two years unless they could prove that it was forgotten or lost. The
four bills add up to a legislative programme which, says the Society
of Editors, "will erode current safeguards, extend state powers,
outlaw legitimate journalistic investigation and bolster state

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