Every government looks for good headlines and employs spin-doctors to achieve them. The media has a duty to be alert and to test claims made against evidence available. It is an unequal battle since government is usually a lot better resourced than media.

That is why Freedom of Information is such an important weapon in restoring some kind of balance. If anyone, media or otherwise, gets a sniff of likelihood that the public is being misled, then the right exists to probe deeper.

No such right existed in the UK until the 2000 Freedom of Information Act - itself a decent point of rebuttal for those who tell us Labour governments do not make a difference. Not all democratic progress depends on spending money.

A high proportion of important stories that find their way into the public domain now emerge through Freedom of Information requests. You need to know what questions to ask in order to avoid being fobbed off, but get it right and jackpots can be hit to the great irritation of all Governments.

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The current SNP administration in Holyrood has never had much time for Freedom of Information if it can get away with it. It has repeatedly faced criticism from Holyrood committees and Information Commissioners for failing to apply existing law or extreme tardiness in doing so.

In 2020, the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party scrutiny committee urged reform to narrow grounds for exemption and criticised the “slow pace” of bringing new public bodies into the scope of legislation After 20 years, the Act as adopted by the Scottish Parliament is “insufficiently nimble to keep pace with the changing nature of the public sector landscape”.

The Scottish Information Commissioner, Darren Fitzhenry, has fought hard to enforce existing law and has not been afraid to inconvenience ministers. In one recent example, he overturned a refusal by the Scottish Government to part with information about advice it commissioned on an independent Scotland’s prospects for EU membership.

Unsurprisingly, this was not something it wished to share with the hoi-polloi, since it painted a very different picture to its own standard narrative. There would be no quick, easy passage if indeed there was a passage at all. Those interested in such publicly-funded hypotheses can now point to what the SNP was told as opposed to what it says.

This week has produced another example of why Freedom of Information is so important as a means of chiselling into the workings of government. Yet again it confirmed the amount of civil service effort that goes into securing favourable headlines even, or perhaps especially, if this involves undermining the credibility of independent research.

The case in point is the minimum pricing of alcohol legislation which has had, at best, mixed results which scarcely merit ministerial laps of honour. The jury is still out on whether making some alcoholic drinks more expensive has contributed any net benefit to the nation’s health – not a message the Scottish Government wants to hear.

In June, Public Health Scotland published a report on three years of minimum unit pricing. What we now know is that before it was published, there were large-scale interventions by civil servants - for which, I think, we can safely read spin doctors rather than medically-qualified ones - to secure more favourable messages and hence headlines.

One draft alone was subject to 88 such proposed alterations. Exception was taken to a passage in which researchers said they could not “rule out falls in disposable income” as a contributor to a reduction in alcohol-related deaths in Scotland’s poorest communities. This, feared the spin-doctors, would “significantly undermine” the headline finding that it was minimum pricing which saved lives.

This critical point goes to the heart of why many people thought the legislation was misdirected. While it was bound to marginally reduce overall consumption, the likelihood was that those with alcohol dependency would spend a higher proportion of their money on drink rather than food, making their prospects worse rather than better.

In the end, the spin doctors got their headlines and only the minority who dug deep into the report would find such caveats. This was doubtless regarded as a triumph in St Andrew’s House, exonerating the policy and silencing the sceptics. Just two months later, that result is tarnished by confirmation - which will have surprised nobody who knows how the Scottish Government operates - that so much political effort went into “spinning” the findings.

That is deeply unfair to the researchers who carried out their work with the independence required of them. It is also, of course, completely irrelevant to the people and communities at the sharp end of this debate who have to deal with the realities of alcohol abuse and have no interest in any political games being played around it.

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On reflection, however, Scottish Government ministers might wonder what good it has done them either? The report published in unamended form would have made some of the points they wanted to hear. Now, thanks to Freedom of Information, scepticism is reinforced not only about the headlines but the validity of the entire thesis.

The same problem arises about last week’s drug death statistics which were published with claims of corners being turned because they were down a couple of hundred on the previous year, though still three times higher than in Britain as a whole and 13 times higher than across Europe.

It has since been pointed out that there was a corresponding rise in deaths labelled “inconclusive” and not included in the headline figure. The respected Glasgow campaigner, Anne Marie Ward, said: “I went to five funerals last year … four of those deaths were recorded as inconclusive, but the families know they were drug deaths”. She would be “surprised” if there was not “jiggery-pokery going on”.

Who knows? Maybe in due course, Freedom of Information will help us find out. The problem with spinning is that the web keeps extending, good news becomes indistinguishable from bad, so all of it is treated with the same level of suspicion.

Brian Wilson is a former Labour Party politician. He was MP for Cunninghame North from 1987 until 2005 and served as a Minister of State from 1997 to 2003.