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The Right to Know

The editorial of the Irish Times of 1st August 2009 claims the public has “a right to know”. If there is such a right, it is so vague as to be difficult to prove it exists.

Ireland has Freedom of Information legislation that addresses the right (circumscribed) of persons to gain access to documentation under the control of some public bodies. Other legislation addresses the right (equally circumscribed) of persons to gain access to information under the control of most public and private bodies.

These rights are available, generally speaking, to the extent that the officials charged with securing them are effective and the legislation permits.

On these fronts the government has taken positive steps to weaken the legislation and the effectiveness of the officials.

This latter statement is, or should be, controversial. If it is true, it is a scandal. If it is not true its publication is a good occasion to show that, and to promote the supposed “Right to Know” claimed by the Irish Times.

It is of course, a true statement.

It is the job of the members of Dail Eireann to suppress those elements of government and public administration guilty of these positive steps.

Those members will not or cannot do this.

That is the real scandal.

The reference to a “Right to Know” is meaningless unless the public perceives the context in which such a right could, or might, exist. That context is one where Freedom of Information legislation is comprehensive and integrated; where even the suspicion of a desire to limit its effect is sufficient to end political or administrative careers and where it would be inconceivable that a salaried member of the administration would be acceptable as a watchdog of the public’s rights.