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Freedom of Information Act Does Not Apply To The BBC

This is a guest post by HP commenter Alec

bush rabbit

I Wish James Stewart Were My Daddy

First things first, I like the BBC. It has all the potential, and a lot of the realization to be one of the institutions which is truly great about Britain. When pottering about the house or vegetable patch, I usually have Radio3 playing in the background.

As part of a professed belief in transparency of government, it has argued for and made use of the Freedom of Information Act. It maintains a Open Secrets blog, written by Michael Rosenbaum, to discuss such issues. I like the concept of the FoI-A.

But, time and again, the BBC comes out with real stinkers. No, I do not mean the eye-defiling Bonekickers – which, thankfully, never will be seen again – or the updating of the Robin Hood legend into the Age of Stupid – which keeps getting shown. I mean stuff like folding like a pack of cards when the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, whose Deputy has been reported as calling for attacks on British service personnel, objected to a panellist on BBC Newsnight claiming the organization supported attacks on British service personnel. Well, Kaa sound/lookalike MCB-spokesman Inayat Bunglawala has said “no pleasure” should be taken in attacks on British service personnel.

Or the BBC’s resistance to, through the expenditure of a six figure legal sum, to two challenges brought by the Information Commissioner and Great Wen lawyer, Stephen Sugar respectively to apply the spirit of the FoI-A.

Dispiritingly, it has seen off both, as Rosenbaum discusses on Open Secrets.

Both were decisions were delivered by Mr Justice Irwin, one after another on 2 October. The first relates to financial transparency by BBC, regarding its use of the license fees. This referred specifically to the Gordon, Jackson, Trice and Goslett Requests:

On 21 January 2005 Mr David Gordon (Belfast Telegraph Newsroom) submitted a request to the BBC for the following information:

“1. What is the annual gross salary paid by the BBC to each of the following George Jones, Stephen Nolan, Hugo Duncan, Gerry Anderson, John Daly, David Dunseith, Donna Traynor, Noel Thompson, Conor Bradford and Seamus McKee?

2. How much did the BBC pay Straighforward Productions last year and what programmes did this relate to?

3. What was BBC Newsline’s annual budget for outside broadcasts in each of the last five years?

4. How many individual foreign trips have been made by personnel working for BBC NI Spotlight programme in the past three years?

5. What has been the total cost of BBC NI Spotlight programmes involving overseas travel in the past three years?

6. What has been the single most expensive BBC NI Spotlight programme involving foreign travel in the past three years?”

(”The Gordon Request”)

On 28 February 2006 Mr Jamie Jackson (The Observer) submitted a request to the BBC for the following information:

“how much the BBC paid for the rights and to cover the recent winter Olympics in Turin Italy”

(”The Jackson Request”)

On 28 March 2006 Mr Arthur Trice submitted a request to the BBC for the following information:

“In respect of your successful soap Eastenders:


4. Total annual staff costs (performs, writers and production staff) of the programme.

5. [….] the range of contract values (excluding extras) from minimum to maximum.”

(”The Trice Request”)

On 31 May 2006 Mr Miles Goslett (The Evening Standard) submitted a request to the BBC for the following information:

“1. What is the budget for the current series of Top Gear on BBC2? (Please specify whether this figure includes presenters’ fees.)

2. What is the annual budget for EastEnders on BBC1? (Please specify whether this figure includes actors’ fees.)

3. What is the annual budget of Newsnight on BBC2? (Please specify whether this figure includes presenters’ and journalists’ salaries.)”

(”The Goslett Request”)

andrew marr glastonbury

Other possible cases of BBC profligacy, which I can recall just now, are: blabbermouth J-J-J-J-John Humphrys, who considers whatever he receives for presenting Mastermind to be “money for old rope“; sending a cotorie of 407 staff – including the well-known music commentator, Andrew Marr – to the Glastonbury Festival and to stare at girls’ bottoms; the Director General, Mark Thompson, insisting that he is worth every penny of a salary which is almost 60 times that which I ever have received (whilst paying the same license fee as viewers on his salary)

The FOI-A has a provision that information held primarily for purposes of journalism, art or literature are exempt from requests; and it was to this that the BBC referred when it declined the above requests. The requesters then complained to the Information Commissioner, who took the cases on their behalf; which has now been rejected.

On the Open Secrets blog, Rosenbaum reports matter-of-factly that this is in keeping with the letter of the FOI-A, and no further debate is required. Readers think otherwise, though.

I would be prepared to argue the case that a journalists require a degree of privacy and protection for their sources or output, but I am struggling to see just how some of the above requests can be defined as “art or literature”.

The second case which Mr Justice Irwin considered, and similarly rejected, concerned Steven Sugar’s long-running attempt to make public the 2004 Balen Report. As recently as February 2009, the House of Lords had ruled that the Information Tribunal had been correct in 2006 when it ordered the BBC to comply with requests for its publication.

An in-house publication, senior journalist Malcolm Balen had reviewed tens of thousands of hours of footage and reams of reports on the BBC’s coverage of Israel/Palestine issues following complaints of bias against both parties. Balen had reportedly said that, on completion, the Director of BBC News had effused praise for his work.

Yet, the BBC declined the publicize the report. I am incline to agree with (but not approve) the argument that this was a general principle of maintaining confidentiality of its own internal documents; highlighted by its refusal to grant the Gordon, Jackson,Trice and Goslett Requests. Yet, the Balen Report refers to a tinderbox issue on which, again off the top of my head, it has arguably shown bias when it: as Hani al-Sibai almost said, showed its feelings towards Israelis by sending a Middle East Correspondant called Foreskin, who then decried the arrest of a mentally-handicapped Palestinian boy who had been tricked into becoming a walking-bomb; eventually accepted that another correspondent breached partiality rules when she admitted to crying at the departure of known Egyptian tea-leaf, Yasser Arafat; employing, as BBC Middle East Editor, Tim Llewellyn who believed that the duplicitous Zionists spoke forms of English to order, selected unassuming Anglo-Saxon names, dressed impecably and, presumably, bled when pricked.

I will add that I do not think the BBC is necessarily liberal or Left-wing (in the derogatory sense). It is less than 30 years since its then Director General, Alasdair Milne (not pictured above) reputably black-balled Harold Rosen – father of Michael… no, sorry, not that one… this one – due to his Communist activities.

Bloated and unaccountable, and thinking the rules apply to the little people is more accurate.

When the FOI-A was passed, I recall a sketch on the BBC (with Dawn French?) about one hapless requester being frustrated by an official in his attempts to see a document which referred to himself. The reason being was that another party, who had not issued consent, was also mentioned.

That other party was the official.

Nor do these rulings apply only to the BBC. The precedent which has been set is that many other publically-funded bodies or organizations could stick a feather in their hats and call it journalistic or artistic or literary macaroni, and not be obliged to account for how they spend public money.

Considering the justified coverage by BBC News of the MPs’ expenses disgrace and admirable use of the FOI-A for its own reporting, and the efforts by entire organization to make public details of the ‘dodgy dossier’, this circumlocutious route to block efforts to impose on it a similar degree of transparency makes it as credible as the thought of MPs attempting to exempt themselves from the FOI-A.

Or the sight of the Potus hugging a seven foot rabbit.