Are tobacco companies abusing freedom-of-information laws by asking for the raw data obtained by academics studying teenage smoking?
Well, Maurice, since you’re director of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information, why don’t you tell us? I mean, you’re surely impartia…
Research funded by a cancer charity trying to reduce smoking is being sought by a giant tobacco company keen to recruit users to its lethal products.
OK, maybe not. Clearly, the dispassionate look at the facts we might expect from someone in your position isn’t going to be forthcoming.
Not surprisingly, the requests are highly contentious.
No, I can bet you’re not surprised.
People who really believe that information should be free wouldn’t be, I’d have thought.
But is the threat as severe as it seems?
Is it actually a ‘threat’? Surely you should be asking that?
A problem for Stirling University’s Centre for Tobacco Control Studies is that our FOI laws are designed to be “applicant blind”. Decisions depend on whether information can safely be made public – not whether it should be released to the specific requester, however much it may be abhorred.
So, why is this a ‘problem’ for you? Am I alone in thinking this is a strange attitude to have from someone who supposedly champions freedom of information?
That principle is important. It means that an authority cannot refuse a request because the applicant is opposing its policies, criticising its competence, challenging its decisions in court or, in the case of an opposing political party, trying to replace it in government.
Then, why should that principle not apply equally to this case? Because you’re an anti-smoker?
It also means that it cannot refuse the request because it is made by a tobacco firm. But the university is entitled to take into account that making the information public would also make it available to such firms.
So, you’re only in favour of freedom of information when it suits you?
The researchers have argued that if they are forced to hand over the information (presumably even in anonymised form from which subjects could not be identified), funders will be reluctant to back them, other academics will not share data with them and teenagers will refuse to be interviewed in future.
Which seems no better than the other such claims made by other such organisations like government departments.
If this is true, then a specific exemption in the Scottish FOI Act may apply.
Did you have a big, self-satisfied smile on your face when you typed that?
Other exemptions, such as breach of confidence, may also apply. This means the “catastrophe” the researchers warn about may not be imminent at all.
I think if I were a member of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information, and I read this thinly-veiled attack piece, I’d be considering getting a new director assigned.