Freedom of Information

Case Study: Freedom of Information: Moat cleaning and a floating duck house on the taxpayers' bill

Would you want to know if it was your elected official who had paid more than £2,000 ($3,300) to clean the moat around his country home?  And that you, the taxpayer, had footed the bill?

Beginning in early May 2009 The Telegraph, a mainstream newspaper in London, broke the news to British taxpayers that their elected members of Parliament (MPs) had charged the public for that moat-cleaning and other questionable expenses.

How can news organizations serve as watchdogs on the government? How do news outlets provide information to citizens about the actions of government? The Telegraph stories, which ran over a period of several months, offers us the opportunity to consider these and other questions about the freedom of information in different national contexts and preserving access to information about the government.

The Telegraph launched its coverage on May 8, 2009 after it received a CD of leaked data by a government insider. The CD included un-edited information about MPs expenses for such things as living costs for their second homes in London. The money MPs received as reimbursement for their expenses was in addition to the £64,766 ($109,600) salary they each receive as MPs. While a number of MPs appeared to submit justifiable expenses, others sought reimbursements for more than questionable expenditures:
£10,000 ($17,000) for a top designer to decorate a flat in Central London
£13,000 ($22,000) for interest on a mortgage that had already been paid in full
£2,000 ($3,400) to repair a leaky pipe under a tennis court
£1,600 ($2,700) to create a floating duck house for a garden pond at an MP's home (see below).

In addition to the newspaper stories, The Telegraph's Web site includes a database on the MPs expenses, including the uncensored reports for many of the MPs. The database enables citizens to access the information directly and research the files for the MPs from their own hometowns. After a month's attention brought by The Telegraph's reporting, the government released the official reports several weeks earlier than it had planned. However, officials redacted (removed) details from the MPs expense reports that The Telegraph chose to report (see below). The government removed all details regarding where MPs lived, but The Telegraph chose to report partial addresses, for example. By receiving the leaked documents and publishing details the government considered confidential, The Telegraph could have faced prosecution for violating British law, such as the Official Secrets Act and Data Protection Act.

The Telegraph believed that certain details left out of official reports were "crucial" for the public to know because they were "key to abuses" of MP expense rules. If The Telegraph journalists had not seen the full, uncensored reports, they would not have seen the addresses of MPs, for example. In doing so, The Telegraph was able to uncover the practice by some MPs of switching which of their homes was their secondary residence, which enabled them to collect expenses for both their home in their constituency and their home in London. MPs are able to collect reimbursement for such things as furnishings and other expenses related to their second home.

Angered by what they believed was a breach of law, member of The House of Commons, the legislative body of the MPs, requested a police investigation into the leaking of information to The Telegraph. However, “Senior officers and prosecutors (from the Metropolitan police) concluded that a criminal investigation into the matter would not be in the public interest,” reported the Press Gazette.

The story caused a furor around the UK with other news media publishing reports on expenses and producing similar Web sties with access to expense databases and reports. The news coverage kicked off a debate amongst the British citizens about the MPs expenses and what is appropriate for MPs to claim.

And news outlets from China to the United States and elsewhere picked up the story on the scandal and used it as a news peg to consider access to public information in their countries.

Should news organizations give citizens access to information about the government?  What kind of freedom of information laws should countries enact? Without media disclosing information about government actions, how can citizens engage in informed discussions about their government?