Page last updated at 19:05 GMT, Friday, 2 October 2009 20:05 UK

BBC report to stay confidential

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

A bid to force publication of a review by the BBC of its Middle East coverage has been rejected in the High Court.

London lawyer Steven Sugar wanted the Balen report, which was drawn up in 2004, to be revealed under the Freedom of Information Act.

But Mr Justice Irwin ruled that, as the material was held "for the purposes of journalism, art or literature", the corporation had no duty to disclose it.

He also ruled the BBC did not have to disclose information about expenditure.

The judgement followed requests for budget details of the BBC's news and sport coverage as well as programmes including EastEnders and Top Gear.

Public gaze

In 2004, senior news editor Malcolm Balen examined hundreds of hours of television and radio broadcasts to compile the 20,000-word report.

Mr Sugar, from Putney, south London, wanted it to be part of the debate about alleged anti-Israeli bias at the BBC.

Two High Court decisions today have narrowed the range of information which the BBC (and some other public bodies) could be forced to disclose to requesters under the Freedom of Information Act
Martin Rosenbaum

He has argued that the Freedom of Information Act was badly drafted and prevented disclosure of material which should be publicly available.

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

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

In his judgement on the Steven Sugar case, the judge said he had taken account of the fact that the BBC was a public body under the Act which was publicly funded, adding that there was a public interest in accessing information about its activities.

But he also said there was a public interest in preserving the freedom of journalism as well as creative and artistic activity.

He told the court: "Different views may legitimately be taken about these questions, particularly at the margins or where the principles collide.


If we are not able to pursue our journalism freely and have honest debate and analysis over how we are covering important issues, then how effectively we can serve the public will be diminished

BBC spokesman

"The resolution is for Parliament, not for the courts or the tribunal. The resolution is contained within the proper meaning of the language of the statute."

Welcoming the ruling, a spokesman for the corporation said: "The BBC's position is that free and impartial journalism is vital to our viewers and listeners and is at the heart of public service broadcasting.

"If we are not able to pursue our journalism freely and have honest debate and analysis over how we are covering important issues, then how effectively we can serve the public will be diminished."

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 the following year.

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.

However, the Law 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.

'Successful soap'

In a separate ruling, the judge said the same principles applied in respect of information about spending by the BBC as in the Sugar case.

His judgement came after arguments between lawyers for the BBC and Information Commissioner Christopher Graham following requests for disclosure.

These included a January 2005 request from the Belfast Telegraph for details of how much the BBC spent on its Northern Ireland news coverage; a 2006 request from the Observer about how much the BBC paid for the rights to cover the Turin winter Olympics; a request by Mr Arthur Trice for the staff costs of "your successful soap EastEnders"; and a May 2006 Evening Standard request for the budgets of Top Gear, EastEnders and Newsnight.

None of those who had asked for the information was a party to the later stages of the case.



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