Tuesday, October 9, 2012

FOI request turned down: Help Annabel!

ABC's Annabel Crabb recently lamented the lack of cooperation from the Public Service when it comes to releasing government documents. Perhaps she would be willing to assist me with an FOI request that has run into trouble?
It is with some irony (given that ABC are a member of the Right to Know Coalition) that today I received notification from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, that in my FOI request for ABC documents it has sided with the ABC and rejected it. Readers may recall I had hoped to establish the nature of internal correspondence between ABC's Audience and Consumer Affairs branch and its news division over its reporting of purported death threats sent to climate scientists. It seemed to us on the evidence available that ACA had acted independently of ABC news in replying to us. Recall in May this year we wrote:

Dear  ABC,

ABC Audience and consumer affairs provided the following comment in reply to a complaint I made on 10 May at 9:21pm about missing news of the privacy commissioners findings on ANU death threat emails  "Audience and Consumer Affairs does not consider there is a case to correct the stories."  I received the reply from your Mr Maley at 10.39am on May 11. 

Mr Maley stated in his email that he had consulted ABC News   "In the interests of procedural fairness, we have also sought and considered material from ABC News." However at  May 11, 2012 09:06:07am, over an hour before his reply to me, ABC News posted the following story:FOI emails reveal threats to climate scientists. on its website (this story subsequently corrected on 21 May).

Can you please confirm whether there was in fact any consultation between ABC News and ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs. On face value it seems there was no consultation at all. How else do you explain the timing?

As ABC were not forthcoming we looked to FOI to provide correspondence between ACA and News that might reveal what occurred. So we requested:
-emails and phone records concerning a complaint I submitted to ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs on 10 May 2012; and

-copies of all emails and phone records between ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs and ABC News between the period 3 May 2012 to 6 June 2012 dealing with complaints or other issues stemming from a number of ABC news reports.

The information commissioner has sided with the ABC and ruled the documents are exempt from the provisions of the FOI act as they somehow relate to programming.

Given that the Federal Court has clearly found that "letters of complaint about the ABC's programs and responses to those complaints on the same subject as well as documents internal to the ABC on this subject" fall within the definition of program material, it would appear that the ABC's decision on your freedom of information request was correct. As such, without further explanation of why your request and the ABC's decision is not consistent with the view expressed by the Federal Court I must conclude that your application is lacking in substance. As such I intend to finalise your application for 1C review unless you provide me with reasons to reconsider this decision.

It seems ABC use this excuse to hide all its dirty linen and the Information Commissioner lacks the will to rule otherwise. Perhaps with the right lobbying and the election of a government interested in accountability, ABC might be forced to open its dark chamber. Until then perhaps ABC should remove itself from the right to know coalition.

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