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by Peter Geoghegan for Open Democracy 29 April 2022, 10.01am

Michael Gove smeared us. Now we have been vindicated by an official inquiry.

The levelling up secretary attacked our ‘Clearing House’ reporting. Today, he is the one who looks ‘ridiculous’

The levelling up secretary attacked our ‘Clearing House’ reporting. Today, he is the one who looks ‘ridiculous’

Here at openDemocracy, we are no stranger to smears from politicians. MPs have intentionally spread inaccuracies about our journalism. They have accused us of acting in bad faith. They have even tried to sue us into silence. But in March last year, for the first time that I can recall, a sitting British cabinet minister attacked our journalism in an official government statement. Michael Gove – in a letter headed with the Queen’s insignia – declared that openDemocracy’s revelations about the existence of a secretive Freedom of Information ‘Clearing House’ in his Cabinet Office was “ridiculous and tendentious”. Today, Gove’s words have been exposed for what they always were: a cheap smear designed to distract and obfuscate.

But they have failed.

A newly published report into the ‘Clearing House’ by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) – sparked by openDemocracy’s investigations – is a damning indictment of the British government’s attempts to block even basic transparency.

PACAC details a culture in the Cabinet Office of secrecy and opacity in which the Clearing House has been vetting Freedom of Information requests from journalists and others and advising departments on how best to frustrate requests deemed sensitive.

These aren’t a bunch of opposition MPs aiming a politically-motivated kick at the government. PACAC has a Conservative majority.

Its chair, Tory MP William Wragg, didn’t mince his words. “Cabinet Office has dragged its feet for too long on this issue and must act now to remove suspicion around the Clearing House, improve compliance with FOI laws and regain public confidence,” Wragg said today.

Neither Gove – now the UK’s levelling up secretary – or his successor as Cabinet Office secretary Steve Barclay have commented at the time of writing.

Freedom of information in Britain is broken.

This matters. FOI exists for all of us. The right to know belongs to you as much as it does to me.

But time and again since openDemocracy first reported on the clearing house in late 2020, the British government has sought to silence our journalism.

When a dozen current and former Fleet Street newspaper editors signed an open letter from openDemocracy calling for an inquiry into the FOI, the government published a long rebuttal on the website. If I were being kind, I’d call it “ridiculous and tendentious”. (You can read it for yourself here.)

The Cabinet Office spent £40,000 of public money on lawyers last year to try to avoid releasing information about the Clearing House to us. It lost, with judge Chris Hughes finding that there was a “profound lack of transparency about the operation”, which might “extend to ministers”.

But still the government kept pretending there was nothing to see.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) watchdog, which regulates FOI, offered to audit the Clearing House. The Cabinet Office said no.

When MPs launched an investigation into the Clearing House, the Cabinet Office responded by announcing that it was running its own inquiry. It only appointed someone to run the review yesterday, and still has yet to set the terms of reference. (The PACAC report branded this an “unacceptable delay”.)

The sunlight of transparency is the best form of political disinfectant. That’s especially the case with Boris Johnson’s government.

This is a government mired in cronyism, an administration in which massive COVID contracts are doled out to ‘politically connected’ VIP firms and Tory donors get a hot line to the centre of power. Against this backdrop, it’s hard to see the record low rates of FOI responses in Whitehall as a coincidence.

The British government’s attacks on transparency are part of a wider pattern of undermining democracy. Boris Johnson has introduced an elections bill that will make it harder to vote but do nothing to stop flows of ‘dark money’ into British politics, policing legislation that will criminalise peaceful protest, and a nationality and borders bill that can strip British citizenship with the flick of a pen.

But we should not get despondent yet. Today’s parliamentary report is hard evidence of something that is all too easy to forget: that change is possible, especially when we act together.

Parliament’s inquiry into the Cabinet Office’s clearing house followed dozens of stories on openDemocracy about the perilous state of FOI in Britain, investigations that revealed the inner workings of this secretive unit at the heart of government.

But the PACAC probe also came in the wake of a huge mobilisation by our readers and supporters. Last year, nearly 50,000 people signed a petition opposing this government secrecy.

More than 4,000 openDemocracy readers responded to a survey on FOI. Readers crowdfunded public opinion polling, which showed that 87% of respondents said they were much less likely to vote for a party with a record of government secrecy.

We will keep fighting to make our FOI system fit for purpose. Last month, more than 110 journalists and campaigners signed an open letter urging the new Information Commissioner to do more in holding ministers and departments accountable.

At openDemocracy we believe in giving you – our readers – the tools to make change. That’s why we recently introduced a new tool that allows readers to write to their MPs on the back of our stories, something tens of thousands of you have done in a few short months.

No wonder Michael Gove and his colleagues in government use smears to block even basic democratic accountability. But today it’s clear who is “ridiculous and tendentious”.

And it isn’t us.


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