McDonalds, RTÉ & McSecrecy

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Jack Chambers TD is in the news today criticising RTÉ for having McDonalds as sponsor of its Big Big Movie.

Mr Chambers said the national broadcaster could be in breach of its standards, adding that the sponsorship could encourage unhealthy eating habits among children.

“It is remarkable that RTE are allowing McDonald’s to sponsor this slot, despite the ban on high-fat, salt and sugary foods during children’s programming,” he said.

“As their own website details, this programme slot has a quarter-of-a-million viewers including a 31pc average share of viewing for kids.

“Sponsorship can reach 85pc of households with children.

Now, some are already complaining that only a Nanny State would prohibit such sponsorship but it is remarkable for a State owned broadcaster to sell the sponsorship of one of the main child/family television slots in the week to McDonalds.

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What has interested me about the story is RTÉ’s approach to freedom of information when dealing with the issue. A few months ago, I was watching the Big Big Movie and was surprised to see McDonalds as sponsor.

I suspected it was not allowed. I was interested to see what I could find out about the arrangement so I submitted an FOI request. Here’s the sequence.

  1. On 4 April 2016 I requested a copy of all records “relating to the arrangement between RTÉ and McDonalds involving the sponsorship by the latter of the “Big Big Movie” screened by RTÉ on Saturdays weekly”.
  2. On 6 April 2016 an acknowledgement letter was sent by RTÉ by email. Strangely, I got that email but it did not appear in my inbox at the time which may have been due to an issue with Gmail. At any rate, it immediately sought an extension to 1 June 2016 on the basis of general workload issues.
  3. Without the extension I should have received a response by 2 May 2016. I hadn’t read the extension letter and heard nothing more from RTÉ. The Freedom of Information Act says that if you do not receive a decision from an FOI body your request is deemed to have been refused, and you can seek an internal review.
  4. I wrote to RTÉ on 11 May 2016 seeking an internal review. I received no response.
  5. I submitted an application for review (an appeal) to the Information Commissioner on 15 June 2016. The Commissioner’s office essentially treated the application as an opportunity to prod RTÉ, who then issued a decision letter (months late) refusing my request in full.

RTÉ’s decision letter provided no schedule or description of the documents they hold (which is standard in FOI decisions). RTÉ decided that every single document they hold relating to the McDonalds sponsorship is exempt from release under FOI because (a) it includes information given in confidence and/or (b) it is commercially sensitive.

It is difficult to see how the “information received in confidence” exemption could apply to this situation. Commercial sensitivity is a frequent basis for refusals and is widely abused by FOI bodies but it is unsurprising to see it invoked by RTÉ. Their reasoning, however, is that their competitors don’t have to release commercially sensitive information so they should not. By applying it to every record held though, RTÉ has effectively carved itself out of the FOI legislation.

For now, despite RTÉ failing to deal with the initial request and ignoring it until prodded by the Information Commissioner, I have to again seek an internal review and will be doing so. RTÉ bought themselves at least two months by failing to issue a decision on the request within the statutory timeframe.

Whatever one’s views about Nanny States and McDonalds, the level of secrecy RTÉ is attaching to the issue is itself a story.

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McDonalds, RTÉ & McSecrecy