IT was one of those “engage brain before mouth” moments, when Commons leader Chris Grayling complained that journalists were only using freedom of information law to research stories.

Well, d’uh, Chris. That’s what journalists do, especially when those in power say their questions can’t be answered. But at least we media types should be grateful for such a perfect summary of its value.

According to Mr Grayling, freedom of information should be restricted to "those who want to understand why and how government is taking decisions", which is anything between a pretty small bunch of political anoraks and academics or all of us, depending on your definition.

But his argument suggests that those who are not students of the workings of government have relinquished their right to be kept informed of what is happening in their name.

Was he really suggesting that government should now create tiers of privileged access? It’s not so far-fetched and to an extent this is already happening, with schemes for official accreditation being floated, in particular by the courts, to deal with a growing army of bloggers seeking the same level of contact as mainstream journalists.

Mr Grayling was speaking as the UK Government’s review of the 15-year-old Freedom of Information (FoI) Act reaches a critical phase, with public consultation closing on November 20. Smelling a shipful of rats, media organisations have piled in, not just to defend the current system but to argue for its extension.

Now actor Michael Sheen has joined the campaign, saying: “I am so mystified by the politicians who apparently have such great difficulty in grasping the importance of the public right to know and the ability of the citizen to access information.”

The truth is they do grasp the importance, but are all too quick to seize on the dangers it presents.

Politicians and bureaucrats are human beings and if there is something which might cause them embarrassment or discomfort they would rather you didn’t know. After all, the Great Westminster Terror which gripped MPs of all parties as details of their expense claims dripped out every day lives long in their memories.

Cost and inconvenience are useful excuses for avoiding disclosure, which is why Birmingham City Council has demanded the introduction of a £25 levy for every request. But fees wouldn’t stop authorities trying to wriggle off the hook and the possibility of paying up only to be told the information can’t be released sounds not only anti-democratic but a racket.

The good news is there is no sign the Scottish Government wants to reform the parallel Scottish FoI legislation, passed in 2002, creating the potential for a free, less restrictive system for Scottish public institutions and a different set of rules for UK bodies, even though they impact on the lives of Scots. It would be a recipe for confusion if nothing else.

But we should not underestimate the danger of creeping restrictions in Scotland, nor be fooled into believing the absence of Scottish FoI reform now is proof of the much-claimed innate liberal instincts of the Scottish establishment.

The current stand-off between Police Scotland and the media about the extent of secret tracking of journalists’ sources serves as a warning. Requests for information about the circumstances of such surveillance have been blocked by the police, who refuse to confirm or deny whether such information is held.

An investigation by the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) is expected to confirm that journalists’ phone records were tapped without permission from a judge, as required under new guidelines.

But due to a technicality involving the appointment of a new IoC commissioner, the report remains unpublished and the Scottish Government has refused to divulge any of its contents. It just makes everyone concerned look furtive.

What really takes time and public money are pointless efforts to hide information (or the lack of it) which is already known. Who knows how much time senior police officers have spent on the journalists’ sources problem at a time when the new force faces a massive crisis of confidence?

The experience of ex-First Minster Alex Salmond and his refusal to confirm or deny the existence of advice on EU membership is instructive. It is estimated the issue cost the taxpayer £20,000 to deal with what was only ever a matter of political embarrassment.

After weeks of controversy it took Nicola Sturgeon to fix something which should have been sorted in five minutes.

As for Police Scotland, how much easier would it have been to just, as they say, 'fess up? Then they could genuinely have said “Move on please, nothing to see here.”

Freedom of information can save the powerful from themselves.

* John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society.