The Freedom of Information Act

Authors of a wide range of non-fiction books have an important new research tool at their disposal: the Freedom of Information Act. Written by Mark Watts.

Known by its acronym FOIA, it presents lots of opportunities for authors – as well as journalists, businesses and campaigners – which have so far gone largely unexploited.

Having introduced this legislation in Britain in 2000, the Government has, seemingly, made its use as frustrating as possible. First, it delayed full implementation until last January. Then, public bodies responded to requests painfully slowly, often failing to meet the 20-day statutory deadline.

These hurdles, constructed by Government, to accessing information has led many, especially journalists who have neither the time nor the patience to negotiate the complexities of FOIA, to give up on it. One Sunday broadsheet national newspaper political correspondent described it to me as a “con”.

However, the fact that Government has put so many hurdles in the way of using FOIA is, I believe, precisely because it is a powerful and, in the right hands, an effective method of unlocking useful information.

I have used open-access provisions, such as FOIA in America, and the Code of Access to Government Information that preceded FOIA in the UK, to root out revealing stories for newspapers for years.

For example, the code enabled me to force the Government to disclose lengthy reports that detailed astonishing overspending on the new headquarters of both the Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). The Government did not want to disclose the reports, but eventually it relented. And that was before FOIA put the public's “right to know” on a statutory footing.

More recently, I obtained fascinating correspondence between the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and the Information Commissioner that showed how the former was pressured for a year to stop newspapers using private detectives to obtain confidential information illegally.

I was interested in this issue because I had written a book about the exploits of Benji “the binman” Pell, who trawled the rubbish of advisors to the rich and famous for documents to sell to the Press. He operated his own version of “freedom of information”.

The PCC claimed that it had not been pressured over newspapers obtaining material illegally. The documents, unearthed with FOIA, proved otherwise. FOIA can help us understand the real picture beneath the PR veneer.

Government departments and the National Archives also publish more material, unprompted, thanks to FOIA.

A small group of journalists, mindful of the hurdles that non-FOIA specialists would face using open-access laws, set up the FOIA Centre in 2001. It is a specialist company that makes FOIA requests for clients: journalists and authors only pay half the standard commercial rates.

If you want to root out information, visit for more information about FOIA and other open-access laws in the UK and across the world, and for details about the FOIA Centre.

Mark Watts is a freelance journalist, author of ‘The Fleet Street Sewer Rat', £12.99, published by Artnik, and co-ordinator of the FOIA Centre: