Aunty in a pickle over online FOI ‘archive’

TV license refusnik Alex Singleton flagged up a rather unsavoury feature of the BBC’s FOI policy this week. He whines:

Why has the BBC deleted from its website nearly 150 responses to TV Licensing questions asked under the Freedom of Information Act?

Of course, he is quite right to whine (on this occasion). The value of a publication scheme will necessarily be diminished if full content isn’t all searchable from the same place.

The BBC has buckled under many paralysing blows these past few months – it’s little wonder they should want to indulge in a little damage limitation here.

Indeed Aunty is vulnerable on many levels to FOI – and while in the past various requests have yielded historically important information (such as the censorship of Real Lives), the UK press has a tendency to piss about with random and irrelevant requests, with the sole aim of padding out their pages on quiet news days.

But that’s hardly an excuse. It’s still bang out of order.

Even worse, having just taken a quick scan through the Information Commission’s guidance on how to manage publication schemes, I can’t see anything significant on the retention of schemes online, save this:

…authorities should have procedures for making sure that new documents covered by the publication scheme are made available and that any outdated documents are replaced or archived.

I’m not sure I see how the passage of time would render many BBC FOI requests outdated, and even if they did why can’t they be made available from within an online archive? The same would go for any authority who undertake pruning in this way.

A while ago it occurred to me that creating a search engine to cover the online publication schemes of various public bodies would have real research value. You could unearth requests made of some departments, and apply them to others – you could get a feel for how the application of legislation changes over time, without having to spend hours picking the bones of standard Google results.

Great though What do they Know’s archive of FOI requests is, it only appears to cover requests going back to this time last year.

But it all seems a bit pointless now.

Anyways, for those of you who really want to see (some of) those deleted responses, there is a half-way house measure.

Just go to the Internet Archive and search for bbc.co.uk/foi – there you will find an entry from 26th March 2008, where you can see some of them in all their glory.

Think I may put in a request myself next week, asking them to justify paying my license money to the automotive wing of the BNP.

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