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9 March 2017updated 10 Mar 2017 3:42pm

Are freedom of information requests poisoning us against the public sector?

Scrutiny is important. But as the reporting of an "epidemic" of harassment in universities shows, it's falling disproportionately on the public sector - and that's a problem. 

By Yo Zushi

When William Blake wrote of “dark satanic mills” in the first years of the 19th century, he was evoking not only the literal mills of the Industrial Revolution but the “many wheels… with cogs tyrannic” of European education systems. The Romantics had a dim view of universities, largely because they feared that systematised learning would turn young people into “dwarf men”. A student was at risk of becoming a “monster birth”, as Wordsworth put it, fenced round by bookish knowledge that keeps true inspiration out. So teacher, leave those kids alone!

Since then, attacks on universities have more often taken the form of (very much justified) gripes about fees, class divisions, racist admissions policies and the seemingly immortal figure of the “Dirty Don”. The last of these will be familiar to anyone who has ever leafed through a student newspaper, or seen the video for Lionel Richie’s “Hello”, although the Dirty Don’s creepiest incarnation in pop culture is probably Dirk Bogarde’s Stephen in the Joseph Losey film Accident. In recent years, the media and campaign groups have rightly been drawing attention to the problem of sexual harassment on campus – most significantly the Guardian’s revelation last Sunday that it is at “epidemic levels in the UK”.

One instance of sexual harassment is one too many. It shouldn’t happen at all but it does, because there are a lot of idiots in the world and when they are put in a position of power, they exploit it. It can be a traumatic experience for victims, who often have to overcome unnecessary obstacles to get any kind of justice or even acknowledgement of their suffering. In 2015, a fifth of Russell Group universities admitted to having no specific guidelines for students on how to report allegations of this kind; six in ten undergraduates told the National Union of Students that they were unaware of codes of conduct prohibiting inappropriate sexual behaviour at universities, ranging from lewd comments to intimidation. Even if victims managed to figure out how to alert the authorities, many institutions did not systematically record reports of rapes, sexual assaults and harassment.

This makes the kind of scrutiny that the Guardian has forced on the sector all the more valuable. The universities in question responded with claims that they had a “zero tolerance” approach to harassment, and they should be held to their word. A more open conversation about the extent of the problem will only help facilitate this.

Yet I also felt that the way the newspaper presented its findings was somewhat problematic. According to a TUC document published last year, around 52 per cent of women in the UK experience harassment across various employment sectors. The law firm Slater Gordon similarly found in 2013 that 60 per cent of women had experienced “inappropriate behaviour” from a male colleague in the workplace. It is a widespread problem not unique to tertiary education – indeed, women in journalism seem to be among those particularly at risk (a 2013 study by the International Women’s Media Foundation showed that some two-thirds of respondents had experienced harassment or abuse of some kind at work).

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The Guardian investigated 120 universities and discovered that 169 students had reported harassment over six years. That amounts to an average of 1.4 documented cases of staff/student sexual harassment per university over that period, or 0.2 allegations at a university per year. Even allowing for the reality that many cases go unreported and those that are can routinely be ignored, the figures cited don’t quite seem to suggest an “epidemic”. Oxford University, which reported the highest number of claims against staff by students, had a total of 21 complaints between 2011-12 and 2016-17. There are 22,600 students at Oxford and 17,000 employees. Is the incidence of sexual harassment there any higher than in any other environment that involves so many people?

We have these statistics about the 120 institutions because the Guardian sent them freedom of information (FOI) requests. The newspaper exposed a culture in which harassment seems to have been allowed to take place with insufficient reprisals, yet, if anything, the relatively low numbers cited suggest that the higher-education sector is little worse than any other in dealing with the problem. The individual universities answered the questions that they were asked, as they have been legally obliged to do since the Freedom of Information Act was passed in 2000, and they supplied journalists with the “epidemic” story, which documented yet another case of state-owned bodies letting Britain down.

As private companies are not obliged to reveal internal data upon request, it is all too tempting for journalists to focus on easier pickings in the public sector. That, to my mind, is one of the big problems of FOI-based reporting. The relentless probing of state-run institutions and the comparatively cautious approach to investigating private-sector businesses could lead, I think, to the normalisation of the view that ownership by the people somehow goes hand in hand with incompetence, shambles and even abuse.

Before the Royal Mail was partially sold off in 2013 – a process completed two years ago – newspapers moaned in a vague sort of way about its supposed overuse of rubber bands (“enough to stretch nine times around the world”), and about the £700,000 paid in compensation “for shoddy service in Sussex”. “Millions of pounds are being wasted on undelivered post after it emerged Royal Mail shreds almost 300,000 items every week,” the Telegraph informed us in June 2012. “Royal Mail has investigated 91 postmen and women in the Black Country and Staffordshire for fraud, theft and hoarding packages in just two years,” the Express and Star revealed in December that year.

All of those stories were based on information disclosed as a result of FOI requests. It’s useful to know these things, but I wonder whether the overall effect of such articles wasn’t to condition us to tire of the five-centuries-old institution in advance of its economically illiterate bargain sale by George Osborne. Some 70 per cent of the British public opposed the privatisation of what they viewed as a national asset, whose shareholders now enjoy about £740m in annual profits while cutting thousands of jobs. Are rubber bands still being wasted at the Royal Mail? Who knows? It doesn’t have to tell us any more.

Universities, like most public services, have been having a hard time of it under successive Conservative governments – although New Labour wasn’t much better when it came to marketising learning. First came the fees; now, the Higher Education and Research Bill, which seeks to make universities more “competitive” through deregulation, is being debated in the House of Lords. Should we be kicking our treasured public institutions when they’re down? Should we single out universities for their “epidemic” of sexual harassment, even if the figures supposedly justifying the use of that term don’t quite seem to support it? Should we be constantly blaming the NHS for its various failures – largely caused by inadequate funding by the governments of David Cameron and Theresa May – when it remains among the best health services in the world, according to analysis by the Commonwealth Fund and others?

Excellent reporting on private-sector abuses and scandals exists, and I’m thankful for that. Yet the danger remains that the ease of FOI-based journalism could lead to an imbalance of scrutiny, in which the public sector unfairly comes off looking worse. One solution could be to demand similar transparency of privately owned businesses and organisations – but that’s as likely to happen as a piñata party on Mars. Another, simpler solution is for journalists to contextualise all FOI revelations more rigorously – and to avoid making a sensational splash out of any revelation unless it truly warrants it. So, fellow journalists, go say to your editor: “I know it won’t bring in many hits online, but let’s present all this soberly…” Good luck!