Entertainment Books

Sunday 26 January 2020

Review: Secrets of the State ... and How to Get Them: The Essential Guide to Freedom of Information by Richard Dowling

A jargon-free collection of stories which provide a manual to enable us all to get to the facts, writes Colum Kenny
The Liffey Press, €18.95

Column Kenny

A man who had suffered an eye injury was attending a consultant in his local hospital. A second consultant at the same hospital was employed by the insurance company against which the injured man had claimed. That second consultant sought and was given by the hospital a copy of the man's personal medical file.

This shocking breach of confidence and of professional standards is just one of many stories told by RTE's Richard Dowling in his new book about breaking down institutional secrecy.

Dowling is one of RTE's most proficient users of the Freedom of Information Act. He argues that it does not go as far as it might to protect the individual. He makes a strong case for the Government to deliver on promises of reform.

Dowling is RTE's north-east correspondent, but he points out that most users of the Freedom of Information are not in fact journalists. The law is there for everyone, and he explains in clear language how anyone can use it.

This is a manual for those who have any interest in the workings of government and other public bodies. The author does not confine himself to the Freedom of Information Act. He discusses too the Data Protection Act which can be invoked against both public and private companies. This allowed that man with the eye injury to uncover the wretched behaviour of the hospital who treated him and of its consultant who was in the pay of an outside insurance company.

Dowling has been resourceful when it comes to uncovering some secrets of the state. When he was thwarted by the fact that the gardai had been excluded from the workings of the act, he resorted to using Freedom of Information laws in the United States to get from the US State Department a list of Islamic extremist groups that the gardai believed were operating in Ireland.

Dowling demonstrates why we should not be put off by the language of EU law when it comes to using it to get information. He devotes two chapters, for example, to an EU Directive called Access Information on the Environment. For one thing, it is more expansive than the Irish Freedom of Information Act because it covers all public bodies.

Some public bodies greatly resent being called to account. In one instance mentioned by Dowling, Kildare County Council told someone that it had no records about the construction of a sewer. When forced to look into it by the EU Environmental Commissioner it suddenly turned up dozens of documents.

The anger of Irish politicians having to account for themselves can be comical. When the German parliament was given details of the forthcoming Irish Budget last year, our Oireachtas seemed to be more exercised by the Germans having them than by themselves being left in the dark as usual by not having them. It is no wonder that parties across the political spectrum have dragged their heels on enacting promised reforms.

Dowling regrets the attitude of some public servants who try to get around the law rather than embracing it as a way to show the public that pays their wages how well they work.

This is not a law book written in the conventional style of works intended for academics or legal practitioners. It is meant for the man and woman in the street, and can be used by them.

Dowling has written a clear narrative that rewards its readers with enough good stories to inspire us to make use of laws aimed at making Irish public bodies more transparent and accountable. Thanks to Dowling, more of us can be more confident of using the law successfully.

Dr Colum Kenny is Professor of Communications at DCU.

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