Shifting a gear – we need your help

With the 2016 Election over, we believe that people who did or indeed did not exercise their franchise may want to see if we can build something to keep an eye on the decisions of those who were just elected. All too often democracy is seen through the lens of voting, and not on the five years in between.

Back in 2009, TheStory.ie was founded as an experiment, by myself (Gavin Sheridan) and by journalist Mark Coughlan (who now works at RTE’s Primetime).

It was around the time of the MPs expenses scandal in the UK, and we took a specific interest in a few areas which were quite nascent at the time: Systematic FOI requests, FOI advocacy, data journalism, data vizualisation, document conversion, document management and legal appeals processes.

TheStory.ie ran on a simple principle – that with some good will, and some hard work, we could move the needle on improving the state of FOI, transparency and of investigative journalism in Ireland. Since 2009 it has run as an entirely pro bono site, working on the efforts of a few who worked entirely without compensation. At the very beginning, you, our audience asked if you could help our efforts – and to that end you donated funds on and off over the years.

For a site run entirely by volunteers (at various times, Gavin Sheridan, lawyer Fred Logue, Mark Coughlan, Ken Foxe, archivist Rodney Breen) we haven’t done too badly:

1) NAMA were defeated in the Supreme Court in 2015 on an issue directly related to its transparency and accountability, based on a request we sent in February 2010, and on lengthy submissions made by us (with the enormous work of lawyer Fred Logue advising pro bono). NAMA also lost two cases in the High Court, one of which was solely based on our direct submissions to the court.

2) The “Trichet Letters” to Brian Lenihan were ultimately released by the ECB following a three-year long appeals process initiated and pursued by us, via the ECB and the EU Ombudsman. We also were first to publish the letter Ireland sent formally seeking a bailout.

3) We were the first to obtain large datasets under FOI, starting with the expenses database of the Department of Tourism, followed by multiple expenses and expenditure databases. These databases contain line item details in the billion of euros, never before seen in publicly available data. Others have since replicated these techniques.

4) We pursued other appeals via the Information Commissioner – achieving results on the definition of personal information, and on the definition of environmental information.

5) We vigorously argued against FOI fees, in particular the upfront €15 fee. We made submissions to the Oireachtas committee during the drafting of the FOI Bill 2014, and rang the alarm when we noticed the Government trying to increase fees via a Committee Stage amendment. The Government later removed the upfront fee altogether, an important step in the right direction.

6) We scanned and published legacy reports and investigations into malfeasance and corruption, including the Beef Tribunal report, which had up to then never been available online.

We have also tried to assist many, many people on their requests – though we often have limited time ourselves. Some might say we have earned a certain amount of notoriety for many of these activities, and if that’s the case then we are doing something right.

Over that time many people have contributed documents to us, many people have tipped us off on things to check or to FOI, and journalists at most Irish newspapers have sent us copies of FOI releases for publication, once they had their own stories complete. This all contributed to building a community of people interested in their rights to access information, in data journalism, and in the principles of good journalism.

But a website like this, run entirely on good will by volunteers in their spare time can only last so long. We have therefore decided that rather than shut it down and get on with our lives – we will try and move the needle even further.

But to do so we need your help.

Our proposal is this: start an organisation on a not-for-profit basis, which is both a media outlet and a transparency organisation. We are calling it Right To Know.

TheStory.ie will continue, but will become the publishing arm of Right To Know. And for the first time since we started doing this work, we will very deliberately be asking you for support – on a membership basis, initially per year.

Clearly, the more members we have the more ambitious we can be – but our objective is to build a self sustaining organisation, without ads, without paywalls, funded entirely by its supporters. And the mission? To act as a watchdog, an advocate, an investigator, a trainer, and a partner to other NGOs and the media.

We are inspired by the good people at The Ferret in Scotland, Dossier in Austria, Correctiv in Germany, De Correspondent in The Netherlands, Access-Info in Spain, Digital Rights Ireland, The Detail in Northern Ireland, ProPublica in the United States – and indeed we have met many of the people behind those organisations over the years.

We believe we can do the same and more for Ireland – through a combination of member support and occasional fundraising around specific efforts. If philanthropic funds are available, we will pursue that too. So with your membership support, what could we do? Well with almost no overheads besides possible staff in the future, we think we could do quite a lot:

100 people donating €50 a year? €5,000 can help us get established and organise. And this is where we want to start.

So here is the question: are you with us? We have an initial group of people – some of the best journalists we know to help us get started, and we will be adding to this list over the coming months.

If we are completely transparent about how the funds are spent (and we certainly will be), and come to escalate our efforts, could we get to 1,000 people, or higher? By way of comparison 13,064 people gave their first preference to Michael Lowry in the recent election. Can a similar number of people “vote” for watchdogs?

If you want to support us, you can join on a yearly basis. In the future we will likely fundraise around specific issues, but our priority is to build a loyal membership who support our work.

Right To Know is a Company Limited by Guarantee and represented by FP Logue Solicitors.

If you want to subscribe head on over here.

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