media & PR

The Royal Family, freedom of information and the rest of the story

At the weekend The Independent ran a piece very critical of the Liberal Democrats in government:

The Royal Family is to be granted absolute protection from public scrutiny in a controversial legal reform designed to draw a veil of secrecy over the affairs of the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William.

Letters, emails and documents relating to the monarch, her heir and the second in line to the throne will no longer be disclosed even if they are in the public interest…

The decision to push through the changes also raises questions about the sincerity of the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to government transparency.

And there was plenty more along similar lines in the piece. But what there wasn’t in the story is the current legal situation. Here’s how the Royal Family’s own website puts it:

The Royal Household is not a public authority within the meaning of the FOI Acts, and is therefore exempt from their provisions …

Section 37 and section 41 of the two respective FOI Acts provide a qualified exemption for information relating to communications with The Queen, other members of the Royal Family or Royal Household …

FOI exemptions relating to the private aspects of people’s lives, such as for example, private finances and activities undertaken in a personal and private capacity, therefore apply equally to The Queen and members of the Royal Family as to any other individual …

Since the Royal Household is not a public authority under the terms of FOI legislation, neither the FOI Act nor the Public Records Act relate to access to the Royal Archives.

Yet despite these many significant existing exemptions for the Royal Family, on a normal read of the newspaper’s piece you wouldn’t realise it – instead it reads as if exempting the Royals is something new.

Is what the current government is planning worse than the exemptions passed into law by Labour when in power? That’s certainly possible, but without putting the changes in context, the piece doesn’t tell us.

As for why it doesn’t tell us, the journalist Robert Verkaik, said to me in an email, “I think it would have been better to make full reference to the laws and amendments to legislation which underpin freedom of information. But the truth is that we didn’t have the room to include such explanation. This is a very complex issue and my job is to make the story as understandable as possible.”

I can appreciate the motivation in the last sentence, but in this case I think the newspaper got the reporting wrong – as did many of the other news outlets which also covered the exemption without mentioning the existing situation, even if the other reports were not so critical of the Liberal Democrats. Across the board, it’s hard to find stories which actually given enough of the issue for the reader to be able to make a judgement, rather than having to leap to simplistic conclusions that because Person X said it, it must be good / bad.

As for whether the proposals themselves are good, bad or indifferent? From what I’ve managed to glean in amongst all the incomplete reporting, I think I’m with Lib Dem MP Tom Brake on this one: “I am disappointed. Maybe this is a matter that will have to be revisited.”

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