Freedom of information? The clue is in the name

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The “economic council” meets to discuss the latest FOI legislation.

Ireland is one of the only countries in the world in which you have to pay to find out how you’re governed.

And in insisting on charging for information that almost every other civilised democracy provides for free, most Irish people – including journalists – are priced out of the market for truth and transparency.

Let’s leave aside for a while the fact that there has been a huge culture shift in the corridors of power since the original FOI legislation was enacted.

Whereas previously there were paper trails that could be followed and initials to prove who knew what and when, the new legislation has promoted a “three monkeys” culture of plausible deniability – no paper trail, no records, nothing to see here.

It’s common knowledge that Ireland’s democracy is a lame duck, when a roomful of people – mostly men ignorant of the workings of the world – can suddenly and irrevocably give away the financial future of the nation without ever asking its citizens.

(Ironically, this is one of those areas that we will never be told the truth about, given the impossibility of accessing the records).

However hard the work of journalists is to begin with, it will be made virtually impossible now. It’s hard enough to get paid for the work – adding another layer of expense is going to make it even more so.

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And what will happen is that even more bright, clever, creative, driven people will move from media into PR and start writing press releases and speeches for the very people they once would have taken down.

And this is the point.

Most of us have been there at some point, the red lamp of the dictaphone on, the list of carefully-compiled questions put aside as we realise that the interview subject sitting in front of us has a story to tell, if only we’d ask the right questions.

So the question is this – why is this government going back on its word and making the Freedom of Information process even more opaque?

And the answer is equally simple – if government in Ireland was truly transparent, there is absolutely no way the people would accept what was revealed.

So the question is not one of journalism, but of democracy.

Both Fine Gael and Labour came to power insisting that they would reform politics.

Great – they can start by opening up the most central part of politics – the government – to scrutiny, and living with the consequences.

Doing so would force another sea change in how things are done in departments, as would the mandatory taking of minutes and recording of discussions.

All this costs money, but so do ballot papers and polling booths. Chalk it down to the price of democracy.

And when they’ve taken away all the barriers and ensured that proper records are kept, they can make sure it’s free, fair and easily accessible to all.

Because freedom bound by constraints is enslavement by another name.


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