Matthew Ricketson, head of journalism at Melbourne’s RMIT, had some harsh words for hacks at last week’s New Media and the Law conference in Melbourne, claiming that many journalists were too lazy and didn’t know how to properly use Freedom of Information laws. “The majority of journalists have used FOI once or not at all,” he said. “Too little imagination is being used… because it is at odds with the daily news cycle.”

As someone who has never lodged an FOI request, this got me thinking. How many other hacks don’t even know how to use the FOI system? After 15 years in the profession, it’s time to open the FOI account. Anyone got any suggestions on what we should go for?

The same session at the conference heard from The Australian’s FOI editor Michael McKinnon, who said that his paper has about 100 FOI applications on the go at any point in time. Wow, that’s quite a program.

McKinnon said the best use of FOI is to extract information on public policy. Wait for a major issue to blow up and then give it a few months, by which time the public service and politicians will have worked up some reports and briefing documents.Then is the time to move on the documents which hopefully aren’t stamped “cabinet in confidence.”

A good example in The Australian was the recent story on rorting of the sugar bailout system. Some farmer who’d moved off the land a couple of years earlier still received another grant. The documents released suggested that the same lousy, inefficient farmers were getting bailed out every five years and not enough were moving out of the industry.

McKinnon is on tenterhooks at the moment as he waits to hear from the Full Bench of the Federal Court on the question of a government’s ability to issue conclusive certificates denying the public access to information on seven key grounds which, ironically, were set out in a case that John Howard brought against the federal Treasury in the 1980s.

It’s a $1 million case, and if McKinnon loses this one, how long will News Ltd continue to do the decent thing and support his worthy but expensive campaign?

Peter Fray

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