If in the hackneyed phrase information is power, and it is, the rules governing this power need to be far more tightly drawn than at present, as several current issues illustrate. It is dreadful that the FOI requests made to the scientists at the UEA climactic research unit were so disgracefully blocked (albeit that some of the climate change sceptics demanding the information may have been obsessive and partisan themselves). Some of the data, for example concerning the location of 42 rural Chinese weather stations or the width of annual growth rings of trees in frozen Siberian bogs, might be arcane and of minute relevance to fundamental climate change questions, but it should still have been made readily available. The evidence about the ‘hockey stick’ is much more serious and should certainly have been provided in full. Scientific data should be a free resource to all who seek it. But that of course applies much more widely than just to contentions about climate change.
John Beddington, the Government’s chief scientist, called on scientists today to share data freely “so that people can do the challenging in an unhindered way”. He should apply his strictures to the Government’s own use of data about GM crops and food (which he supports) where the GM companies only publish trials data favourable to their cause and prevent researchers getting access to any data that undermines their commercial interests. Indeed where scientific claims are being made, FOI transparency should be made applicable equally throughout the private sector, especially in the field of pharmaceuticals. Recent cases about the use of injunctions to prevent disclosure, and in addition super-injunctions as in the Trafigura case, also reveal the need for strengthening the law to open up access where there is a clear public interest to do so.
Whilst the suppression of information that should be in the public domain by deliberate evasion of FOI requirements should be punished as a serious offence, the opposite case – the unlawful interception of messages where no genuine public or scientific interest in disclosure can be made – should equally be treated as a serious offence with deterrent penalties. Most notably the involvement of News of the World journalists in extensive phone hacking, plus unlawful requests by them and other newspapers to the Information Commissioner for intimate details on an allegedly endemic scale, is a serious invasion of privacy that cannot be justified and should be stamped out by much more significant penalties.