The Big Lie, Part One: Spout any old bull you like, so long as it panders to the audience’s prejudices. Indulge yourself. Cite bogus studies.
The Big Lie, Part Two: When corrected, do not address your directly. Repeat the lie. Preface with “What the PC brigade won’t tell you is…”
The Big Lie, Part Three: Keep going until the media stop calling your lie a lie, instead referring to “a controversial topic”. Start over.
In March 2012, I sent a Freedom of Information request to the Department of Social Protection (DSP), looking for the Jobbridge database.
By July of the same year, DSP had replied with some of what I sought, but I had some problems, and so an appeals process began.
My first problem was the DSP refusal to provide details of companies which had asked for anonymity during the advertising process. Internally, these are referred to as “Closed Vacancy” companies. About one in five advertisements for Jobbridge internships are closed vacancy, that is, the applicant does not know what company is advertising the post.
The second problem was the refusal to hand over a field called “COMPANY_ID”. This field is the only way to link the company placing an advertisement with the job it is advertising. DSP said this was confidential information and releasing it would constitute a security breach which could unleash evil hackers in some unspecificed manner.
Finally, there’s a field in the Database which indicates whether or not a company requested anonymity. It’s basically a “Yes/No” button, called “ANONYMOUS”. We’ll come back to that later.
As it turns out, when DSP sent me a database in July 2012, they accidentally sent me the names of the Closed Vacancy companies. I didn’t know this at the time, and I appealed the Department’s refusal to provide me with the names of Closed Vacancy companies. The internal appeal was upheld in the Department’s favour, and so I then began an external appeal, to the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC).
In December 2014, OIC got back to me to let me know they’d issue a decision shortly, and to bring me up to date on their thinking. It was at this point that I first learned that I already had the Closed Vacancy companies. OIC explained that, since DSP had given me the Closed Vacancy names, the question was moot, and it would not decide the issue of whether DSP was required to hand over Closed Vacancy names. In return, I pointed out the database they had sent me was almost three years old, and I intended once a decision was made to ask for a fresh database with up-to-date names, and if they didn’t make a decision, then I’d have to go through the entire appeals process again, which would take another three years.
The OIC decided not to decide about Closed Vacancy names, as they first indicated. On the up side, the OIC did make some “General Observations” at the end of the decision. Reading them optimistically, they appear to say in effect that, if the issue arose again, OIC would be inclined to find in my favour.
However, observations are not binding, and DSP could easily delay for another few years until an appeals process plays itself out.
Happily, OIC did decide I had a right to COMPANY_ID numbers, so I will now receive a database with meaning, and not a list of internships orphaned from the companies advertising them.
I had emailed a request for a fresh database (including Closed Vacancy companies) to DSP today. They can decide to release those names, or I can enter the appeals process again. So ar, it’s been two years and eleven months…
Update 2: There’s some fine tuning to take care of before the information is released, since the database is quite large (I have no interest in fax numbers, for instance) but the Department of Social Protection has indicated to me today (24 February 2015) that it will release the names of Closed Vacancy companies.
In response to a letter from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland about coverage of same sex marriage, RTE politely responded that it knew how balance worked. I previously published a copy of the BAI’s letter to RTE, which I obtained from the BAI itself.
Below are the letter and the official RTE response, obtained through an FOI request to RTE.
Maybe the problem is Charlie Haughey wasn’t that interesting.
In a way, he wasn’t. I grew up with CJH as Taoiseach, yet no matter how many times I was assured he was a charismatic, powerful and dominant presence, I never saw it.
I saw another dull grey politician, and Ireland being Ireland, it wasn’t that hard to read between the lines of the regular newspaper profiles. Unexplained wealth? You mean the explanation is defamatory? Gotcha.
It wasn’t until later I found out how venal he was. I had in mind dodgy land deals, maybe a payoff here and there. Stealing Brian Lenihan’s liver transplant money? That I didn’t see coming.
There were half a dozen plots crammed into the first episode of Charlie. Any one of them could make a good drama. Instead, they were like signposts on a coach tour, places to look out the window at as we sped by.
The liver fund is a film in its own. It encapsulates the small minded thuggery and corruption of Haughey’s Ireland. But it won’t be the story we get. Instead we’ll have dull exposition about Dessie and the PDs, Sean Doherty and the phones, SPUC and the rosary clutchers.
Or at least, I want information to be freed. And thanks to the new Freedom of Information Act 2014, signed into law today, it just got a little more free in Ireland.
Now there are a lot of caveats. Not all officialdom falls under its terms, there are exceptions for things like commercial sensitivity (which can be very broadly defined), not to mention the cost of appeals.
But still, the 2014 Act is an improvement on the regime it replaces.
So suddenly there’s a wealth of information at my fingertips, if only I knew what to ask for.
Over the years, in piecemeal fashion, journalists have successfully sought information on a great number of topics, but not in a structured manner. A local reporter in Donegal might have asked a question of the local council, but no one has ever gone through every council in Ireland seeking the same information. Or a journalist sought particular databases from one government department, or one quango, but not all of them.
So here’s my question: What old FOI requests could be applied more broadly? Feel free to leave your answers below, or if you prefer, drop me a line at email@example.com.
Freelance Forum is a regular one day event designed to keep freelance journalists up to date with the latest developments in their industry. Aimed at writers and photographers, and hoping to cover print, broadcast and online, it is organised by Dublin Freelance NUJ Branch.
Speakers at the Autumn 2014 Forum include Lyra McKee, a young Belfast based journalist who used crowdfunding to finance an investigation into the death of Rev Robert Bradford MP, RTE correspondent Richard Dowling and Ray Mitchell, assistant national director of the HSE on the new Freedom of Information Act, as well as commissioning editors Frank Murtagh and Emmet Ryan on pitching skills, and representatives of the Mary Raftery Fund and Simon Cumers Fund giving details of how to use philanthropic funding for journalism projects.
Full details of the event, which takes place on 20 October in Buswells Hotel, Dublin, are available at the Dublin Freelance website.
Bookings can be made using Paypal or credit/debit cards.