Editorial | Bad vs worse

Selling a law widely perceived as reducing transparency is no easy task. Especially not if you are a politician

Have a look at the annual rankings of the most trustworthy professional groups, and it’ll come as no surprise that politicians rank at the bottom, outdone only by their special advisors – the so-called spin doctors.

With that in mind, it’s not difficult to understand where the mistrust of the motives behind the recently passed revamp of the freedom of information act comes from.

Moving to keep information out of the public’s eye never sells well, but when the beneficiaries of the manoeuvre are a group of people already held in deep mistrust by the public, it only stands to reason that popular opinion will see the law as resulting in less accountability.

Even if you couldn’t filter out the constant political posturing, it should have been reassuring to hear heavy-hitting and long-trusted experts, including a University of Copenhagen law professor, Eva Smith, and a former ombudsman, Hans Gammeltoft-Hansen, give their blessing to the law. 

Yet it wasn’t, and that’s odd, because while it’s one thing to laugh as the justice minister repeatedly fails to come up with examples of how the law would benefit the political process, it’s another thing entirely for non-partisan figures to explain the law as a fair, if not flawed, piece of legislation.

Part of the explanation for why these trusted voices support the law, even with its faults, may lie back on that list. For ranking only slightly above politicians when it comes to trustworthiness are journalists – only car salesmen separate the two groups. 

Just as the public can paint a caricature of self-interested elected officials, so too can they conjure up an image of the overzealous reporter, hounding lawmakers in search of the next big scoop. 

In many cases, such attention is warranted. And research has shown that it is unlikely a number of the biggest political scandals in recent years would have come to light had the new freedom of information rules been in effect at the time. 

On the other hand, one could ask whether the law is a natural – and even necessary – reaction to instances of journalists pursuing lawmakers through parliament or rooting through their residential rubbish bins to dig up evidence of misdeeds. 

For a piece of legislation ten years in the making, and given the backing of some of the country’s sharpest – and fairest – minds, perhaps the most astounding thing about the law isn’t that it will put some information out of the public’s eye. The most astounding thing may just be that the lawmakers who support it couldn’t do a better job of selling it to the public. 

Too bad they didn’t ask a car salesman for help.