Who’d have thought that journalists who wish to investigate, uncover and expose scandals and injustices without compromising their freedom or exposing their pet whistleblowers, would be subjected to the whims and fancies of the Supreme court in the course of its earnest deliberations over such things as the meaning of the word ‘predominantly’.
Who knows what was on the minds of Lord Phillips and pals as they grappled diligently on behalf of the BBC with the tricky business of defining what is or is not in the public interest.
The Freedom Of Information Act is supposed to
“promote an important public interest in access to information about public bodies.”
But when the unstoppable Freedom of Information Act collides with the immovable Data Protection Act, there’s bound to be trouble.Thankfully, the judges know what’s good for you. For your own good the BBC and a few other bodies enjoy a special exemption
(safeguard) so that you, the public, can’t poke your snoopy noses in.The safeguards are there
“to prevent interference with the performance of the functions of the BBC in broadcasting journalism, art and literature.”
So in certain circumstances
“……………the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information”
And who decides whether disclosing information outweighs the BBC’s public accountability?
“……………the disclosure of which, in the reasonable opinion of a qualified person (which in the case of the BBC is the corporation itself, acting by its governors)…”
Eureka! The BBC itself is qualified to decide!
However, the judges are aware that this doesn’t look brilliant in terms of PR. They must rationalise the notion that concealment trumps transparency, and secrecy is more ‘in the public interest’ than accountability.
“ In this case, there is a powerful public interest pulling in the opposite direction. It is that public service broadcasters, no less than the commercial media, should be free to gather, edit and publish news and comment on current affairs without the inhibition of an obligation to make public disclosure of or about their work in progress.”
Excellent excuse! But his honour is still slightly apologetic:
“ I would add that I am conscious that this interpretation of the limitation may be seen as conferring on the BBC an immunity so wide as to make the particular statutory redemptions redundant, and leave the BBC almost free of obligations under FOIA.”
It certainly pans out that way, and sweet of you to notice.
“On a broad definition, it could be argued that all of the activities of the BBC are for the purposes of journalism, art and literature, as these are broad descriptions of a substantial part of its broadcast output . . .”
Go on. Why not make the BBC exempt from the FOIA altogether and be done with it? Even the the judge is wondering this:
“However, if a very broad definition was intended, there
would be little point in including the BBC in Schedule 1, Part VI of
FOIA. The BBC could have been omitted altogether from the scope
of the Act.”
However, here comes ‘the chilling effect’.
“The BBC submitted that disclosure of the Report (and any other information held for the purposes of journalism) would have a chilling effect upon their right to freedom of expression;”
The same phrase was uttered by a journalist in respect of the Leveson Inquiry. This monstrous chilling effect, this inhibiting, this compromising, this…..cramping the BBC’s style, evidently justifies concealing the contents of the Balen report for ever and ever. Does this apply to Murdoch’s journalists too?
The BBC’s desire for secrecy almost puts their internal workings in the same category as certain trials being beyond the reach of the open court for fear of revealing secret counter-terrorism information.
The appellant (Mr. Eicke QC,) has the temerity to think accountability is a reasonable request.
“(The appellant) not only disputes that the release of the Report would have a chilling effect on freedom of expression but submits that only the need to protect journalistic sources – or perhaps, indeed, more narrowly still, the need to protect sources who might otherwise be deterred from assisting journalists – would constitute an overriding requirement of the public interest sufficient to justify this interference with the citizen’s article 10(1)right of access to information.”
Quite so. since the Balen report was originally carried out in 2004, can the contents really still be for the purposes of journalism? Balen’s recommendations, if there were any, would surely have been implemented by now, if they were deemed worthy of implementing!
Despite the fact that during the period in question there was a reshuffle of BBC management personnel at the top, certain recommendations were put into effect, one of which is said to have been the appointment of Jeremy Bowen. Perhaps the Balen report concluded that they weren’t biased enough against Israel?
If the Balen report found bias against Israel in 2004 it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s biased in 2012. By this time surely the BBC could have got away with another of those ‘the-bias-was-all-in-the-past’ mea culpas and saved the £300,000. They must have thought it was worth spending the dosh to ensure they could continue to go about their business in any way they see fit, unfettered by scrutiny and without the threat of exposure.
Meanwhile, simmering away on the back burner is the detrimental effect the media’s self-interested or partial reporting has had on society. The BBC’s anti-Israel bias has consequences. One small example; the comments below an article about Iran’s nuclear ambitions on an official BBC blog by Robin Lustig, which boasts the strap-line ‘Trying to make sense of the world’ clearly demonstrates they’ve failed. They’ve only succeeded in making nonsense of it.
“And another thing, how is it that Israel is a ‘stabilizing’ influence on the region while Iran is a ‘destabilizing’ one? One of these countries is a theocratic violent terrorist state that refuses to abide by international law, while the other is a theocratic state that hasn’t invaded another nation in a thousand years? Satire cannot do justice to this hypocrisy”
The moral equivalence given to Iran and Israel elicits neither challenge nor counter argument, and is evidently deemed acceptable by the moderators.
This assumption reared its head on Question Time, which Melanie Phillips discusses here.
The BBC charter stipulates impartiality – not that such a thing is realistically achievable, but balance could reasonably be expected ‘over time’. If this is not happening, someone should intervene. Bias by omission, by emoting, and by overt propaganda are all against the rules, but who will enforce them? It’s not usual to trust bodies to self-police – not even the police – and especially the BBC who won’t or can’t recognise their own bias or admit they get anything wrong.
These legal appeals gather more and more moss the longer they drag on, and each time they’re re-appealed the entire legal history has to be reviewed and reconsidered. The procedure has to scrutinise previous hearings, till it begins to resemble that game where each player has to recite a shopping list from memory, adding another item one by one; as the the list grows longer, the harder and more tedious the task. The judges weren’t memorising shopping of course, they were seeking loopholes and cracks in previous hearings. Looking for hooks on which to hang excuses to keep the Balen Report in the family.
They seemed genuinely worried about creating a precedent that would fetter the BBC, and conscious that the Balen report’s qualification for exemption was tenuous. Did it really come into the category of “for the purpose of journalism art or literature? They admitted they were virtually gifting the BBC complete immunity from the FOIA. They saw that determining what was in the public interest could be stretched and squeezed, describing it as ‘elastic’.
In short they dallied over whether they liked the idea of civilians knowing the content of the Balen Report or not, and having pre-decided ‘not’, excreted copious verbiage in rationalising their fancy.
It boils down to a simple reality. The BBC, or the BBC Trust can continue as before. If there is bias, so be it. Like it or lump it.
The fear that ‘internal frankness’ would be damaged if ‘the public’ had ‘the right to know’ outweighs the fear that biased reporting has a corrosive effect on ‘the public.’ External frankness, external critical review and external analysis of output can get stuffed
On the BBC they refer to Israel as “Iran’s arch enemy.” Is that upside-down description even-handed, logical or accurate? What is the likelihood of an internal review correcting that?
I think I rest my case.