As a journalist, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Freedom of Information Act. It seemed like a powerful tool for holding our political masters to account.
However, now that I’m trying to set up a free school the boot is on the other foot. By common consent, the point at which the school becomes real is when the funding agreement is signed. This is the contract between the Secretary of State for Education and the charitable trust that owns and controls the school. Until earlier this year, such trusts were exempt from the scope of the FOI Act but that was changed by an amendment to the Academies Bill in the House of Lords. Academy trusts are now ‘FOI-able’ and that will apply to the trust that will own and control the West London Free School.
Not too alarming, you might think. But here’s the interesting part. According to my lawyer, the documents relating to the set-up of our trust, including the email correspondence between me and all the people I’m currently working with on this project, will be FOI-able. Given how politically controversial the West London Free School is, not to mention legally contentious, it’s a safe bet that our opponents will take full advantage of this opportunity. Anything we say to each other can and will be used against us in a court of law.
Not surprisingly, I’m not as enthusiastic about the FOI Act as I was. As Tony Blair pointed out in his memoirs, it’s not used by the people as a way of making government more ‘transparent’, but more often than not as a blunt instrument that politicians and their allies use to bludgeon their enemies. In the case of the West London Free School, left-wing opponents of reducing state control over taxpayer-funded education will use the FOI Act to make our lives miserable in the hope of deterring other groups of parents and teachers from following in our footsteps.
It won’t work. My view is that the opponents of free schools — the NUT, the SWP, the Anti-Academies Alliance — will throw everything they’ve got at us and so long as they are comprehensively defeated they will be a spent force. Whenever a potential ally asks me whether I’ve got the stomach for all-out war with defenders of the status quo, I always quote Sean Connery’s speech to Kevin Costner in The Untouchables: ‘Here’s how you get Capone. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way and that’s how you get Capone.’
As in all wars, there will be collateral damage. The person I feel sorry for is the poor drudge who’ll be forced to wade through the mountain of emails relating to the set-up of the school. He, or more likely she, will be a recent graduate of Oxford or Cambridge doing a mini-pupillage at some ‘progressive set’ like Matrix Chambers. The pitiable creature will be forced to stay up all night, pouring gallons of Nescafé down her throat as she fights to stay awake in the face of my interminable emails about Building Bulletins and Facilities Management. I feel such a surge of compassion for this creature that I occasionally include little messages at the end of particularly boring emails: ‘Note to FOI monkey: Wouldn’t a career in criminal law be more interesting?’
I’ve experienced this boot-on-the-other-foot feeling before. I remember appearing on a platform with Simon Pegg at the 2007 Cannes film festival to promote How to Lose Friends & Alienate People. It felt peculiar to be looking out at my journalist colleagues in the audience and I had to stop myself leaping out of my chair and joining them. ‘So Toby,’ one of them asked, ‘how did you feel when you found out Simon Pegg was going to be playing you?’
‘Bit disappointed, to be honest,’ I replied. ‘I was hoping for Brad Pitt.’
A joke, obviously, and they all laughed, but a hack from the Independent duly punished me the following day. ‘Toby Young said yesterday he was disappointed to be played by Britain’s number one box office star,’ she wrote. ‘Would have preferred Brad Pitt.’ Beneath that was a picture of Brad in all his pulchritudinous glory and a picture of me looking particularly hideous. It was an example of what I refer to as Kingsley Amis’s Law: ‘Never make a joke against yourself that some little bastard can turn into a piece of shit and send your way.’
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.