A right to know, not a right to mislead

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
League tables are back thanks to dubious and misguided journalism, says Michael Russell

Freedom of Information - long looked for in Scotland - is turning out to have unintended consequences. The Sunday Times Scotland devoted substantial space last month to the publication of primary 7 performance results for every primary school in Scotland. Despite the fact that there is considerable political and educational agreement that such "league tables"

are a bad thing and that they actually mislead parents as well as demotivate schools, our new freedom of information regime means that results cannot be withheld even for as long as it would take to organise them into a meaningful format.

Consequently, it is fine for journalists to seek them out, place them in a series of arbitrary tables, surround them with highly pejorative commentary, fail to check them properly with each school or authority and then hype any false inferences they draw from them.

In this case, "freedom of information" means freedom to distort information. In fact, it is worse than that, for the Scottish Executive will almost certainly now give in and start publishing the results in exactly the way that the Sunday Times wants. So those of us who have argued over the years that helping teachers and schools to understand fully and promote accurately how pupils are doing is ultimately much more useful to parents than publishing false comparisons will have been defeated by a piece of legislation meant to enhance transparency, responsibility and intelligent citizenship. Unintended consequences indeed.

There are other examples. I have known David McLetchie since we were at university together and, while I carry no torch for his politics, I know he is not a dishonest man. Certainly, the arrogance that overtakes politicians in time may have infected him, and it might be wise to limit all politicians to two or three terms as a representative, or as a leader, in order to curb that unfortunate tendency. But there is a difference between unthinking arrogance and deliberate deceit.

Of course, he had got his expenses into a terrible mess, and he deserves censure. But media coverage week in and week out for months was not necessary, and he has some justification on his side when he argues that such persecution was unfair, and probably politically motivated as revenge for his role in bringing down Henry McLeish. It was little wonder that in the end David McLetchie had no stomach left for such an uneven battle.

Now the Scottish Parliament has decided to publish expenses claims in full, on the web, within months of them being submitted. No great harm in that, except that, as a former MSP, I know what will happen: constituents and others (and especially journalists) will assume that the money claimed is for personal use. There will be even more anger at such use of public resources. No amount of explanation will make any difference, and the reputation of politicians as always "at it" will continue to grow. Another unintended, and unwelcome, consequence of "freedom".

One other example shows how problematic this legislation is becoming. I have a long-term involvement with the case of Shirley McKie, the Ayrshire police officer wrongly accused of perjury as a result of the misidentification of her fingerprints. Some eight years after the case started, she is within a few weeks of a full hearing of her claim for compensation at the High Court in Edinburgh.

As soon as the freedom of information legislation was vested, her father lodged comprehensive requests for documents with Strathclyde Police, the Scottish Criminal Records Office and the Executive in order that she might be fully armed for her day in court. To say these bodies have been dilatory would exaggerate the speed of their response. Individual officers have been supportive and helpful but the material has dripped out, rather than flowed forth. And as it has appeared, the list of items withheld has been growing and growing - now more than 600 from the Executive alone.

Certainly the occasional gem is hiding among the dross - for example, the admission (more than five years ago) by Chief Constable Willie Rae that Shirley McKie would have to be compensated and his advice that the Executive should stop playing "pass the parcel". But to get to such welcome revelations, a lot of tiresome mining has to be done. During that process, one cannot but feel, more and more strongly, that the really important information is that which is still sitting unseen in Executive filing cabinets.

Iain McKie is now faced with a series of appeals to the information commissioner in order to obtain what are probably vital pieces of information for his daughter's litigation against the Executive, information that the Executive already knows. Yet, given the time-scale of the case, he is literally working against the clock, again a fact known to the Executive, which has totally failed to meet the requirements of the Act. They know that a judgment on them for that failure will in itself take time, and give them more time.

These three examples suggest that freedom of information, at least as it is presently being used by Scots, is in danger of becoming a sham. A sham that forces education authorities to publish information in a form that will not help and might even hinder individual parents and pupils; a sham in which complete openness about the minutiae of expenses will fuel the present feeding frenzy about the proper payment of politicians; and a sham that allows ministers and civil servants to delay, obfuscate and refuse, even when faced with a clear legal timescale.

Don't get me wrong - I voted for the legislation. I just regret that so far Scotland does not seem mature enough to use this new democratic tool with the wisdom and integrity it demands.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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