Following on from our post yesterday about the BBC and establishment’s tag team defeat of Tony Newbery’s challenge to a FOI request refusal, there is a need to look more closely at the stitch up we are subjected to. All too often people who want to understand how the BBC arrived at an editorial position or selected its news coverage and sources submit a FOI request, and in turn receive the following boilerplate in the response:
…the information you have requested is excluded from the Act because it is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature.’ Part VI of Schedule 1 to FOIA provides that information held by the BBC and the other public service broadcasters is only covered by the Act if it is held for ‘purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature” 1. The BBC is not required by the Act to supply information held for the purposes of creating the BBC’s output or information that supports and is closely associated with these creative activities
Is that fact, or just what the BBC would like people to believe? Consider for yourself when you read this separate explanation from the BBC, in response to a request for the documents about its policies, that make the BBC feel it can exempt itself from information using the broadest possible interpretation of the Act’s provisions:
In summary, the BBC considers the derogation protects the journalistic, artistic and literary integrity of the BBC by securing a creative and journalistic space for programme-makers to produce material for broadcast free from interference by those who would seek to influence our output. Additionally, as also recognised by the Court of Appeal, it allows for a “level playing field” between the Public Service Broadcasters caught by the Act (BBC, Channel 4, S4C, GMS) and their commercial competitors. In practical terms, the BBC has interpreted this to mean that we are not required to supply information held for the purposes of creating the BBC’s output or information that supports and is closely associated with these creative activities. [emphasis in bold italics is mine]
So the BBC considers that the derogation protects the journalistic, artistic and literary integrity of the BBC by securing a creative and journalistic space for programme makers to produce material for broadcast free from interference by those who would seek to influence their output, extends to anything and everything the corporation does. It is not just a stretch of the Act, it’s dishonest too.
But that excuse should not be allowed to withhold information from people requesting information about how the BBC arrived at an editorial position when it has a public service remit, is duty bound to be impartial and is funded with public money. That excuse should not apply when people simply want to be informed about how the output was selected so members of the public may decide for themselves if the output can be considered partial, slanted or biased.
The BBC having freedom of expression is absolutely fine if it is paid for from commercially derived revenues. But the licence fee paying public that funds the BBC deserves to know if any BBC output is being driven by rationales, motives and agendas that may be at play within the corporation, because it would reveal a failure to comply with the requirements in the BBC Charter to be impartial. The BBC appears to be hiding behind its own interpretation of the FOI derogation to evade appropriate accountability. So what exactly it the BBC hiding? The claim that sharing information could place the BBC at a disadvantage against their commercial competitors just doesn’t stack up.
Perhaps it is time to challenge the BBC notion that asking to be informed about how the BBC determines its output is tantamount to seeking to interfere with or influence the BBC’s output. Asking how something was determined is not the same as interfering with output or seeking to influence it. It is a rational argument and one I do not think has been tested, not even in the Sugar (deceased) v British Broadcasting Corporation case.
Maybe it is time for it to taken out for a test drive.