Page last updated at 15:10 GMT, Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Lords send BBC back to High Court

News 24
The report looked at the BBC's news coverage of the Middle East

A legal bid to force publication of a BBC review of its Middle East reporting has received a boost from Law Lords.

The case will return to the High Court after the lords voted 3-2 that it was wrongly blocked by past legal rulings.

London lawyer Steven Sugar wants 2004's so-called Balen report published under the Freedom of Information Act.

He wants it to be part of the debate about alleged anti-Israeli bias at the BBC. The corporation says the internal review was never meant to be seen.

After initially being dismissed by the Information Commissioner, Mr Sugar's request to see the report gained the backing of the Information Tribunal.

The BBC's subsequent appeal against that decision was upheld by the High Court in 2007, backed by the Appeal Court last year.

The corporation says that information it holds is only subject to the Freedom of Information Act if it is "for purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature".

It is a "hybrid authority", the corporation says, and it is only regarding material outside those three areas that its status is that of a "public authority" subject to the act.

The High Court and Appeal Court supported the BBC, saying that the case fell outside the scope of the act and that the Information Tribunal had no jurisdiction.

The BBC's decision to appeal had nothing to do with the fact that the Balen report was about the Middle East
BBC statement
On Wednesday, however, Lord Phillips said the High Court had been wrong to treat the request as one not to a public authority simply because of the nature of the information.

He said the case depended on whether the material itself fell within the scope of the act.

The lords ruled that the tribunal did have jurisdiction, and that the High Court must reconsider the case based on the other issues raised in the BBC's defence.

Following the ruling, the BBC said it had gone to court to clarify the law over the jurisdiction of the tribunal and the application of the Freedom of Information Act to public service broadcasters.

"The BBC's decision to appeal had nothing to do with the fact that the Balen report was about the Middle East. It just happened to be the first to go before the courts," the corporation said in a statement.

"The Law Lords have not ruled that the Balen report should be released. What they have done is clarify the law around the jurisdiction of the Information Tribunal."

Senior news editor Malcolm Balen examined hundreds of hours of television and radio broadcasts to compile the 20,000-word report five years ago.

The BBC says the report was always intended as an internal review of programme content, to inform future output.

It has said it is vital for independent journalism that debates among its staff about how it covers stories do not have to be opened up to the public gaze.

Mr Sugar, from Putney, south London, has argued that the Freedom of Information Act is badly drafted and is preventing disclosure of material which should be publicly available.

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