Thursday, November 24, 2011

Journalistic fraud made easy

Surprised it took nearly a day for the Fair 'n' Balanced Network to come up with a story from the latest batch of leaked "Climategate" e-mails? Well, it appears to have been worth the wait:

Did $16 Stand in the Way
of Climate Science?

The head of a key British climate lab, a central figure in the 2009 "Climategate" scandal, thought requests made under Great Britain's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) were a nuisance that should be stonewalled while crucial correspondence is deleted -- unless someone pays up first, that is.

My, my, my. In order, I guess:

1) There's no indication $16 stood in the way of anything
2) Don't feel bad if you don't recall the key players of "Climategate." It was only a scandal in a small part of the world

3) We don't know what anybody thinks about FOI requests in general. That's just made-up

But on Planet Fox, Phil Jones of the Climate Research Unit is a household name, so let's see what drives this tale to the top of the front page:

... According to the December 2008 email exchange, Jones wrote to David Palmer, the information policy and compliance manager for East Anglia's research unit at the time, arguing that unless a fee accompanied a FOIA request for information, he didn't need to bother going to the trouble of replying.

"Dave, do I understand it correctly -- if he doesn't pay the £10 we don't have to respond?" Jones asked. The sum he requested, £10, is worth about $16 U.S. dollars.

"No, we don't have to respond unless we get the £10," Palmer told Jones -- before reading him the riot act over deleting emails, a direct violation of Britain's Data Protection Act of 1998, he said.


Ten pounds would have been a little less than $15 as of Dec. 1, 2008, but that's not the point. When you present stuff ordered in the manner of news, you're warranting that it's not just new but relevant. Underneath that idea is an assumption that if a question bears on your topic, you've asked it; if you say the sky is falling, you've determined that a reasonable journalist could settle the matter by looking out the window, and you've looked out the window. Here, we might reasonably ask how odd it would be for a UK agency to charge a fee for costs incurred in meeting an FOI request. As it takes almost no time to find out, not very:

Your estimate can only include the costs of:

  • determining whether your authority holds the information;
  • locating the information, or a document which may contain it;
  • retrieving the information, or a document which may contain it; and
  • extracting the information from a document containing it.
For the purposes of the estimate, you should cost the time taken on these activities at £25 per person per hour regardless of actual cost.

I like information, and I think public information ought to be public, and I'll be among the first to note that freedom of information -- like freedom of speech -- is a right guaranteed to complete sleazebags as surely as it is guaranteed to the pure of motive. But j-schools teach the tactics as well as the letter of FOI laws for a reason. Legal interactions begin as human interactions, and if you're the sort of person who's rude and overbearing toward clerks, recordkeepers, and desk officers, don't be surprised when your requests are met at the slow end of the pace required by law. W
hen you're trying to destroy someone's career, you shouldn't expect that person to give you a discount.

There's no reason to believe anyone "only responded to requests for information if paid," as the frontpage blurb says, or that anyone thinks all FOI requests are nuisance. It seems fair to guess that, when requests come in from the sort of bottom-feeders who have enabled the pseudocontroversy known as "Climategate," they get less than top-priority treatment. That's the window the intrepid journalists at Fox resolutely refuse to look out of when the party's interests are at stake.

To reiterate: No. I don't want the people who hold information to be in charge of judging the motives of people who want information. That's up to the marketplace of ideas. Do your part today to ridicule Fox News and all its allies and friends!

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Picky said...

In case there is any doubt, it is perfectly proper under the Freedom of Information Act to charge for the cost of locating, extracting and forwarding the information requested.

3:21 PM, November 24, 2011  
Blogger fev said...

All the incarnations of FOIs I know of in the US allow for reasonable costs too -- which again suggests that the writer's either deliberately dishonest or strikingly ignorant of professional norms.

3:57 PM, November 24, 2011  
Anonymous Picky said...

Or unpleasantly slovenly, I suppose.

11:41 AM, November 25, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yet another failure to distinguish "free as in speech" from "free as in beer", apparently. Not that I expect any better from Fox.

1:56 PM, November 25, 2011  

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