Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Freedom of Information

As a journalist I like find original news stories I can work on. I often submit a Freedom of Information request to get the ball rolling. It's nothing fancy, it's not particularly hard to submit a request, as long as you are very clear about the information you want it's actually quite straight forward. Well it should be.

I've been working on a story for a few months now which has required numerous FOI requests to several different organisations in the South West. In about 3 days I sent about 15 in total, hoping that I would receive the responses at a fairly similar time. How wrong I was.

The Information Commissioners Office states "public authorities should aim to respond fully to all requests within 20 working days" I wish that was the case.

Only about half of the organisations I contacted were able to give me the correct information within the 20 working day time limit. Some places did contact me to rearrange another deadline as they couldn't gather all the information they needed within the time frame. That I don't mind. They consulted me, we discussed the issue and an extension was agreed.

The other places that hadn't answered my request I started to chase about one week after the 20 working days had passed. Much to my horror some organisations had simply 'forgot' about my request. They had acknowledged my request, given me a date when I should expect a response but neglected to actually to do anything. Bravo. Other excuses I heard were 'the email must not have been passed on' or 'I'm not sure who's dealing with it'.

The best outcome was this... One organisation puts all its Freedom of Information requests and responses online so the public can look at them. I could see mine. There was the request date and there was the response date. To my surprise the response was actually there. I click on the response icon and I can see a letter that's for me and I can see the Excel Document that I need. Unfortunately I can't access it as no one has actually bothered to send the response to me. It was only after several emails and phone calls that I actually got the information sent to me so I could look at it properly, days after it went up online. I'm frustrated to say the least.

I don't make up stories, I don't exaggerate the facts, all I want to be is fair and accurate in my reporting. Yet I find this increasingly difficult when I struggle to extract the most basic information from people. Even if they have got nothing to hide, it makes you think they have because it really is (sorry for the cliche) like drawing blood from a stone.

Isn't this the era of transparency for public organisations and indeed for journalists? I'm working on it, believe you me, I'm working on it.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011


Amsterdam is a city I've always wanted to go to. I've been to Europe on quite a few occasions and Amsterdam has never been on the itinerary until this year. One specific trip to this famous place and it disappoint.

Even though the weather was pretty bad 75% of the time, there still was enough to keep me amused and happy. The unique start to the trip started off with my accommodation. Cheap and cheerful and by no means normal. I decided to stay on a house boat that was owned by a lovely chap called David. Although it was not on the central canals it provided a much needed sanctuary after busy days walking around soaking up the Amsterdam atmosphere and alcohol. That phrase really did sum up my trip. A few days of pottering around markets, galleries and museums. Mixed in with brewery tours, distillery visits and coffee drinking.

This may seem terribly British but one of my highlights was the Heineken Experience. Not only did you get to smell and taste all the lager ingredients but you also could be brewed. Yes, brewed! There was a great virtual ride which let you see the process of how the beer is brewed and bottled. Because of a moving platform, special effects and music you were transported through all the motions and became a bottle of beer. It sounds a bit naff but it actually was a really clever and lateral way to liven up an otherwise boring story. Well done Heineken and well done to the 1.5 litres of free beer! Definitely worth a visit.

If you want something slightly less shallow here is always the Anne Frank and Van Gough Museums. Be warned, they are very popular so there is pretty much always a queue. One thing you never have to queue for is charisma and excitement. That is everywhere you go in Amsterdam. There was always a little path or a canal walk that caught me eye that I wanted to wander down. Four days wasn't quite enough time to discover all of what the city had to offer but I made the most of it.

A visit to Amsterdam isn't complete without a trip to the red light district. If you can see past the boozy Brits and the American backpackers it's a really interesting place. Sex shows, hookers, porn shops, sex museums, it caters for all kinds of tastes all along the pretty canals. In some ways it's quite sad going there. I'm as guilty as others but I believe tourists have made it into a seedier place than it really is. Too much of a good thing. The tourism excess has blighted another one of Amsterdam's pulls; it's liberal laws about drugs. Soon tourists will no longer be able to smoke cannabis in coffee shops in a bid to clamp down on 'drug tourism'. Just another sign of how the city is changing.

Despite the changes, the beer is still good and the cheese is great! Well worth a visit and I would certainly go back. I couldn't leave Amsterdam without some tulip bulbs. I have no idea how they will grow in England. I'll plant them in Autumn so I can bring my Amsterdam memories to life. They'll be a constant reminder of what a brilliant time I had in Holland.