So much for the new era of openness

Lord Falconer, secretary of state for constitutional affairs, spoke in November of introducing a new era of openness in...

Lord Falconer, secretary of state for constitutional affairs, spoke in November of introducing a new era of openness in Whitehall. But he knew it would not be easy.

"Opening up Whitehall and introducing freedom of information is a titanic task," he said. As if to prove him right, the Department of Health did all it could to stop a reporter from Computer Weekly attending a press briefing in Whitehall last week on the national programme for IT (NPfIT) in the NHS.

It was a rare press briefing: the first in recent history in which the minister responsible for the NPfIT and the head of IT in the NHS were jointly giving an update on the progress of the NPfIT. They were expected to answer questions from journalists. But not from a Computer Weekly reporter.

"Can I go through?" asked the reporter, armed with his DoH press pass, as he approached a turnstile in the reception area of Richmond House, headquarters of the Department of Health.

"No," said Brad Smythe, a press officer to the health minister John Hutton.

Along with other journalists, including some from national newspapers and periodicals, the reporter from Computer Weekly had collected a press pass for the briefing from the department's reception desk. The pass allowed access through the turnstile to the press briefing. But Smythe stood in front of the turnstile when Computer Weekly's reporter wanted to enter. He moved to allow other journalists to pass, then stood in front of the turnstile again.

That Computer Weekly had won an award from the Periodical Publishers Association for its coverage of the NPfIT cut no ice.

Was it that officials were unenthusiastic about allowing the minister to face questions about the NPfIT from Computer Weekly in front of key journalists from the national press and the BBC? These suspicions were allayed by the national programme's director of communications James Herbert.

"You are not invited to this particular press briefing because it has not been structured to be targeted at people like yourselves who are very knowledgeable about the national programme," he said.

Herbert conceded that he could not recall any other time when the minister and head of the programme had given a joint press briefing. "It is not aimed at people like you," said Herbert. He added that there was no intent to specifically exclude Computer Weekly.

In a letter sent to Computer Weekly the next day, Herbert explained,"There is a distinction to be made between a press conference at which an announcement is made and a more specific briefing or update. Generally speaking, the former are open to a wide range of media. The latter are usually aimed at specific reporters or sections of the media."

One irony is that, after the briefing, one journalist who attended told Computer Weekly that it would have been of more interest to us than to those allowed in.

The words of Falconer come to mind: "The difficulty of opening up Whitehall is a measure of precisely how important it is to do it." We could not have put it better.

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