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Requests denied, delayed and redacted

Mike White.

Requesting information from the government and its agencies is like pulling teeth, writes North & South journalist Mike White.

The letter arrived on a Friday afternoon when thoughts were turning to walking the dog and weekend chores. It was from the Corrections Department, and contained an apology to me.

In September 2017, I’d applied to visit a prisoner who claimed he had been wrongfully convicted and wanted to speak to me. Over the next five months, I sent Corrections five emails asking for an update on my application. Three times Corrections simply didn’t bother replying. In February 2018, it said a decision on my application was expected “this week”.

Three months later, I’d heard nothing more. So the prisoner’s lawyer wrote to Corrections, threatening legal action, given eight months had now elapsed. His email was also ignored. A week later, he again wrote to Corrections. This time they replied, and I was advised I’d be allowed to visit the prisoner.

However, it took another five months, and further strident intervention from the prisoner’s lawyer, for Corrections to arrange the meeting, meaning this simple application had taken 13 months in total.

Nine months later, the letter arrived apologising for their handling of the affair and promising changes had been made to prevent a repeat.

Journalists have long-established rights to interview prisoners, but in recent years Corrections has tried to prevent visits by the media, other than those for prison initiatives they want publicity for. In 2015 and 2016, North & South was forced to go to the High Court to overturn decisions by Corrections denying us visits to prisoner Scott Watson. Yet this latest episode again laid bare both Corrections’ reluctance to accept these rulings, and the sapping frustration journalists face when dealing with government departments.

Related articles: Our information should be free – why is the OIA an obstacle? | The full interview: Gerald Hope and Scott WatsonTransport Ministry accused of dodging OIA request on Joanne Harrison

Often this occurs when trying to interview somebody. You’d think well-paid senior officials within these departments would be capable of speaking directly to a journalist, and answering questions. But no, invariably all they’ll produce is an anodyne, robotic statement, massaged by spin doctors, that rarely answers the questions and is little more than puffery and bullshit. It’s sad that so many intelligent public servants choose to hide behind wordy evasion crafted by an underling, rather than front up and be open.

More frequently, journalists cross swords with public servants when seeking information. Under the Official Information Act, most government departments and agencies are required to make information available to the public unless there’s good reason not to. But, increasingly, it’s used by politicians and bureaucrats to stymie, obfuscate and obstruct.

Requests for information are frequently delayed, ridiculously redacted, or denied on spurious grounds. Worse, departments demand hundreds or thousands of dollars to provide this information – public information the public has a right to see.

It constantly bemuses me that people who call themselves public servants and are paid by the public see it as their role and right to withhold information, seemingly champion secrecy over transparency, or see themselves as responsible to their political puppeteers, rather than the public.

This government promised it would be the most open in the country’s history, and began moves to review the OIA. Now, Justice Minister Andrew Little says that mightn’t be necessary, because they’re so open – a staggeringly subjective statement from someone whose position gives him access to most information. For the rest of us, it’s just the same as it ever was, with deliberate controlling and suppressing of information.

Of course, if any journalist or member of the public is unhappy with the response from a government department or body, they can complain to the Ombudsman. Which is exactly what I did when Corrections refused to make a decision on my prison visit. I complained in January 2018. Corrections fobbed off a credulous Ombudsman’s official, so I complained again, in April 2018. But it took till July 2019 before the Ombudsman’s office forced Corrections to apologise for how it handled my case – a bewildering 18 months after that initial complaint.

At this point, as a journalist, you’re left thinking, what’s the point? What’s the point in engaging with government departments in the first place, when they just ignore and obstruct you? And what’s the point in complaining when the largely toothless Ombudsman takes so long to investigate a simple case?

Well, the point is, if you don’t, if you give up, it just lets these decision-makers, who are employed by you, get away with abusing the small power they have. It lets them believe they are justified to flout laws and fundamental responsibilities. And it encourages them to do it again.

This editorial was first published in the September 2019 issue of North & South.

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