BBC report row goes to the High Court

The BBC is heading for a High Court battle in a bid to stop a report on its coverage of the Middle East being released. A two-day hearing in which the BBC will seek to block release of the Balen Report, which is thought to run to 20,000 words, will take place on 27 March. Members of the Jewish community and other BBC critics believe the report contains evidence of anti-Israeli bias in news programming.

The bid to gain access to the report has been spearheaded by Steven Sugar, a commercial solicitor who claims that under the provisions of the 2000 Freedom of Information Act, access should be given to it.

Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has already refused him access in the wake of BBC objections. However, that decision was overturned after Sugar went to the Information Tribunal and challenged it. It backed him in his bid to see the report. This week though the High Court gave the BBC permission to mount a test case challenge to the tribunal ruling. Sugar has also been given permission to make submissions personally during the March hearing, along with lawyers for the Information Tribunal.

The report at the centre of the case was compiled by the BBC’s senior editorial adviser, Malcolm Balen, in 2004 and is said to examine hundreds of hours of BBC radio and television broadcasts.

When the case reaches court, one of the questions to be raised will be whether the Information Tribunal was even entitled to deal with Mr Sugar’s application and then reach the decision it came to.

The BBC is only covered by the FoI Act ‘for purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature”. On this basis it is said to have rejected more than 400 FoI requests, which could eventually be re-opened if the case finally goes against the BBC. However, Sugar claims that the report is not held by the BBC for purposes of journalism. He says that is because the report is ‘about journalism itself”. In those circumstances he claims he is entitled to apply to see it under the provisions of the Act.

After this week’s hearing at which permission for the appeal was granted Sugar said : ‘A very large proportion of the Jewish community felt rightly or wrongly that the BBC’s reporting of the second Palestinian intifada or uprising that broke out in 2000 was seriously distorted. I myself, as a member of the Jewish community, felt that and was very distressed by it. I am even more distressed that the BBC failed, until it commissioned the Balen Report, to respond substantively to the criticism.’Last week the BBC lost a separate two-year FoI fight against The Guardian over the release of the minutes of a BBC Board of Governors meeting at which the resignation of Greg Dyke was discussed, following the Hutton report in 2004. The minutes were released with detailed discussions from the Governors about the pros and cons of accepting the resignation. The Guardian appealed to the Information Tribunal.

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