Here’s hoping Guyon Espiner now grills Callaghan Innovation about its OIA practices…

Before exposing his moral indignation about the Taxpayers’ Union using false names to file Official Information Act requests, Radio New Zealand’s Guyon Espiner should have consulted  the publisher of No Right Turn.

This blog and the Taxpayers Union are poles apart, ideologically.

But political commentator Malcolm  Harbrow – who blogs under the nom-de-plume is an indefatigable champion of the public’s right to request information from public agencies under the OIA and a stern critic of agencies which fail to meet their legal obligations to provide the information requested.

He was astonished by the thrust of an article, published by the New Zealand Herald under the byline of one David Fisher and beguilingly headed How right-wing lobby group NZ Taxpayers’ Union used false identities to make OIA request – and how it got caught.

This article was the prompt for Espiner, on Morning Report today, grilling Taxpayers Union chief executive Jordan Williams about the use of pseudonyms.

The Herald had found that false identities were used by the Taxpayers Union (“a right-wing lobby group”) to make OIA requests of government agencies and numerous email addresses from its purported members were directly linked to its head office.

This use of false identities emerged after a Herald investigation into an unusual pattern of requests for information to Callaghan Innovation, the Government’s science research agency.

The OIA requests under question came from 14 named individuals during a sustained campaign by the Taxpayers’ Union into entertainment and travel spending at the science research institute

The article does not mention that the information gathered during this campaign, when released by the Taxpayers Union, was eagerly regurgitated by news media.  The Herald published its account under the headline Callaghan Innovation pinged for $300k on entertainment, including drag queens.  

Now the Herald has become huffy about the number of requests the Taxpayers’ Union made to Callaghan Innovation and about the dubious names attached to some requests.

A Taxpayers’ Union statement about its practices admits the lobby group has invented identities to make OIA requests, saying it was “forced” to use pseudonyms when “government bodies stonewall us”.

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier would not comment to the Herald about this specific case but said government agencies were entitled to check if those requesting information were entitled in law to do so.

Those who were entitled to do so were citizens, residents, and companies based in New Zealand or with a place of business here.

“If the requester does not meet these criteria, then the Official Information Act does not apply.”

Boshier also said: “If people are eligible to make requests, then they are not required to use their legal names.”

At No Right Turn, Idiot/Savant expostulated: 

“Shock! Horror! Someone is using false names to make OIA requests!”

Then, having given readers the run-down on Fisher’s revelation about people using false identities, he went on:

Of course they do. So does every serious requester. In fact, I would be extremely surprised if the Herald’s David Fisher, who produced this article, hadn’t done it himself.

As for why, the reason is simple: because there is a well-founded perception that agencies treat requesters differently based on who they are and the reason they believe they are requesting information.

A request from a journalist or advocacy group may be delayed, transferred, or see as much information withheld as possible, while a request for exactly the same information from a random member of the public will see it speedily released. So regular requesters often pretend to be other people to get the information they are seeking.

Its a practice as old as the OIA itself.

I recall reading an ancient article about the toxic days of the Fourth Labour Government, where people in one Minister’s office were having to make pseudonymous OIA requests to find out what other Ministers were doing. Nowadays, with email and FYI, its trivially easy. Make a throwaway account, file OIA request, wait 20 working days. Its only problematic if the agency is one which uses eligibility requirements as a barrier, or if you want to complain to the Ombudsman later.

The question of the law is then addressed:

Is it legal? The Law Commission noted in its 2012 review of the Act that there’s no requirement for requesters to provide their real name, and agencies would have no way of knowing if they did anyway. It therefore made no recommendation on the matter. The Ombudsman is on record (in their submission to that review (Q45)) that there should be no requirement for requesters to state their real name. So its certainly not seen as a problem by those responsible for upholding the OIA regime.

In other words, rather than some weird and underhand practice, its a common OIA tactic, and likely used by the journalists themselves. Rather than investigating it, maybe the Herald should be looking at why it is necessary, and campaigning for a better freedom of information regime, rather than persecuting those struggling to make it work.

Idiot/Savant concluded by musing that the Herald‘s investigation “seems pretty dubious itself”. They obtained the email addresses of requesters, he observes, although it is not clear how, and then they attempted to hack the accounts to learn their password reset emails.

FYI is on record as saying they did not provide the addresses, “and I think there’s interesting questions to be asked about how the Herald did it…”

FYI is a website that enables New Zealanders to publicly lodge OIA and Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act  requests online.

Its administrators have no problem with false names:

“We also do not oppose pseudonymous requests, are opposed to OIA eligibility requirements, and believe requesters should have a right to be treated equally.”

The site is run by Open New Zealand and proudly declares it is supported by – can you believe it? – Fisher’s employers, the New Zealand Herald.  

Guyon Espiner should have checked this out – and had a chat with people like Malcolm  Harbrow – before believing he was holding the moral high ground during his interview with Jordan Williams.

We trust he has someone from Callaghan Innovation among his interviewees tomorrow, to respond to Williams claim that information requests from Taxpayers’ Union staff and volunteers are  treated differently from requests from other organisations, or members of the public.

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