Freedom of Information: News

openDemocracy wins Campaign of the Year at the British Journalism Awards

Our commitment to seeking transparency in public life put us on a shortlist with major national news organisations

16 December 2022, 1.25pm

Up where we belong. Left to right: Jo Allan of Newsworks, which sponsored the award; Jenna Corderoy; Ramzy Alwakeel; Jeremy Vine, host of the ceremony


ASV Photography

Last night openDemocracy scored the biggest prize of our 21-year history: Campaign of the Year at the industry-leading British Journalism Awards.

We took the award for our journalism and campaigning on transparency in British public life, beating shortlisted entries from The Sunday Times, the Daily Express, The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and CNN.

The victory followed Wednesday’s news that openDemocracy had made it onto two shortlists in another prestigious competition, the Press Awards. Once again our work on transparency put this small journalistic outfit on a list alongside the Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Sun and The Sunday Times.

And our reporter Adam Bychawski is on the shortlist for Political Journalist of the Year, against star journalists from The Sunday Times, The Independent, the Mail on Sunday, The Sun and The Guardian.

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The winners of the Press Awards will be announced next year, in an event on 8 March.

It was a thankless task, a real David and Goliath effort, which saw their work personally insulted by a government minister

Peter Geoghegan, openDemocracy editor-in-chief

The winning submission at last night’s British Journalism Awards featured work by investigative reporter Jenna Corderoy, reporter Lucas Amin, Bychawski, reporter Seth Thévoz and UK investigations editor Martin Williams.

Peter Geoghegan, editor-in-chief of openDemocracy, said: “This prestigious award is a tribute to what is at the heart of openDemocracy: journalism that holds power to account.

“This campaign was founded on our commitment to transparency in British public life – and culminated in the government being forced to close the scandalous Clearing House that was vetting Freedom of Information (FOI) requests from journalists, researchers and members of the public.

“I am so proud of Jenna, Lucas, Adam, Seth, Martin and the whole openDemocracy team for the months and months of painstaking investigations and stories. I know how very, very hard they all worked to protect FOI from the forces of secrecy within this government. It was a thankless task, a real David and Goliath effort, which saw their work personally insulted by a government minister. But, in the spirit of the finest traditions of openDemocracy, they did not give up.

“This award would not have been possible without openDemocracy's dedicated readers. Tens of thousands took part in this campaign. They donated money to support our journalism. And we won.

“Let me repeat that: openDemocracy is a small not-for-profit news outfit yet we took on the might of the UK government and won! I'm delighted that all that bravery, effort and determination has been recognised with a British Journalism Award. It's a huge endorsement of our work.”

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Corderoy, whose FOI work laid the foundation for many of the scoops in openDemocracy’s transparency campaign, was on stage to receive the award.

She has not only been persistent in pursuing FOI requests and appeals, but has personally taken on officials in court. Her innovative methods revealed what a judge later called a “profound lack of transparency” in the way the government handled transparency requests and led to a major parliamentary inquiry and the government’s decision in August to disband a controversial unit for handling FOI requests.

Corderoy said: “It is a huge honour to be recognised for our work on transparency. We have worked many years on our campaign and it wouldn't have been possible without the help of our readers and supporters.”

Stewart Kirkpatrick, head of impact at openDemocracy, said: “Our team firmly believe that our journalism can empower people so for the past two years we've been working hard to involve readers in campaigns rooted in our journalists' exclusives.

“We ask them to contact their MPs about our work; to fill in surveys so we can demonstrate public opinion in inquiry submissions and the like; to sign open letters; and to help fund our work. The combination of our investigative journalism and mass reader campaigns has real power to make change happen and it's wonderful to see that recognised by our peers in this way.”

openDemocracy also launched a series of surveys about government transparency, which received 10,000 responses from readers. We asked readers to crowdfund 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. These findings were used in our journalism and also in evidence to MPs.

Further, using a tool on the openDemocracy website, readers have sent more than 5,000 emails to their MPs on lobbying and media freedom.

Corderoy has continued to score wins in other areas too. One related to the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency, a pet project of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser. After government tried to exclude it from the Freedom of Information Act, Corderoy asked for documents to justify this secrecy. The government refused to hand them over, so Corderoy complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which ruled that the government should provide the evidence.

Elsewhere, in July the Department for Education updated official transparency releases of ministerial diary of Gavin Williamson, the former education secretary, after openDemocracy contacted them about its story.

In November, after a 12-month battle by the UK’s biggest police force to keep the details secret, Scotland Yard handed openDemocracy heavily redacted documents about Met Police officers sending racist and sexist messages. Once again, Corderoy had to complain to the ICO to have the messages released.

openDemocracy rounded off the year by co-hosting a December event in Parliament on FOI requests and the future of accountability in government. Panellists included Labour MPs Fleur Anderson and Andy Slaughter, The Guardian’s Rachel Oldroyd, Information Commissioner John Edwards and openDemocracy’s Corderoy.

Anderson namechecked openDemocracy’s ‘Art Of Darkness’ report into FOI failures, and Corderoy lamented the backlog of delayed and refused requests, which can take “months if not years”. Edwards added: “Information delayed is information denied.”

But further challenges in openDemocracy’s fight for transparency and accountability lie ahead. This month we learned that the government will take us to court next year, in efforts to resist publishing its secret ‘lessons learnt’ review of the Covid pandemic.

The Department of Health and Social Care had previously backed down and agreed to publish the review, after another appeal by Corderoy to the information watchdog. But the department lodged an eleventh-hour appeal with the ICO, meaning an information tribunal is likely to be held in 2023.

openDemocracy will continue to fight this – and other attempts at secrecy by those in power. Our work is possible only because of the donations of thousands of ordinary readers. If you would like to see us continue to not only hold power to account but force it to change its ways for the better, we welcome any contribution you can make.

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