Yesterday I recorded Treasury press officer, Andrea Geoghegan, refusing to give me information she had to hand revealing exactly how much worse off the Treasury thinks the Budget will make families. I published it on Audioboo and wrote about it on Daily Finance. It has caused a stink.
Does the press officer deserve it? Should I have named her? Did I give her a fair chance? I’ll tell you how I behaved writing my “Treasury tries to kill Budget cost story” then you decide.
I watched the budget – and Miliband’s reply – on TV (well via Slingbox to my Mac) and was commissioning stories from the various AOL bloggers.
I got the Red Book online and when I saw the figures in the section on how much the budget would cost I called the Treasury Press Office. That was 3.09pm.
I wrote the story based on my best guesses at the figures. It is hard to judge viewing figures on such a small table when the increments are in £100 jumps.
Just after 5pm, having been working from 7am, with both breakfast and lunch taken at my desk, I went out for a walk. Sometime after 5.30 Geoghehan rang my mobile (I had been using my mobile all day as my telephone line was down) and we had a bizarre conversation.
I got back and emailed my boss at AOL, Tom Flack with the details. The subject heading of the email was “Unbelievable”.
My email listed the conversation like this:
They said: “We do have the data used to compile that chart. It is going to go on our website within the next two weeks.”
I said: “Are you saying you have the data ready but you won’t give it to me today?”
They said: “Yes, we are not releasing it today. It will go on our website within the next two weeks”.
I said: “Will you notify me when it is live?”
They said: “No, you will have the check the website. If you cannot find it in two weeks call us back.”
On Thursday, I still couldn’t believe it so I decided to call back and double check. This time, with the phone line fixed, I recorded her call back. The bulk of that what I put on Audioboo.
As you can hear, I agreed not to do anything until 4pm. I seriously thought they would send me the information then. The research was publicly funded with the express intention of transparency. Geoghegan sounded inexperienced and I was sure a more senior PR would release the information.
AT 1pm I received this email:
We spoke about the release of the underpinning data. As explained yesterday, the data is being formatted and will be published on the Treasury website next week.
The document below “Budget 2011 data sources” sets out the sources of the data and the way they are calculated.
What I need are the actual numbers represented by the black marks on the chart. You can send it to me unformatted. I can work an Excel Spreadsheet.
This is information compiled by the civil service, paid for by the taxpayer with the stated aim of helping to explain the budget to the taxpayer.
I know you want to delay publication until people have lost interest but that is not what taxpayers pay you to do.
Daily Finance will launch a campaign to get these figures, including an open letter to the Chancellor and encouraging our readers (more than 130,000 for this story so far) to write to their MPs. We will also raise the issue of censorship and bullying on the press. We will make sure this stays very much alive until the figures come out.
You have the figures. Please just send them to me. Or explain why you are refusing to supply them.
AT 5.20, I posted the audio to Audioboo and sent a link to Geoghegan saying: “4pm came and went”.
I stuck to my side of the bargain.
That’s what happened. I feel I gave the Treasury every opportunity to respond. They deliberately withheld data that the taxpayer has the right to see. News is, famously, what somebody, somewhere, wants suppressed and all the rest is advertising.
Links (new windows)
- Treasury tries to kill budget cost story
- Budget: Average family £400 worse off
Roy Greenslade: Treasury press office refuses to divulge public interest information
- PSmith: How to be a reporter in a digital age: don’t take no for an answer
- Budget Red Book PDF