BBC wins court battle over Middle East coverage report

The BBC has fought off a legal bid to force public disclosure of an internal report on its Middle East coverage.

In a landmark judgment, a High Court judge ruled today that such information was held by the BBC “for the purposes of journalism, art or literature” and that therefore, under an exclusion clause in the Freedom of Information Act, the Corporation had no obligation to disclose it.

Mr Justice Irwin’s decision on one aspect of the case came as a blow to lawyer Steven Sugar, a commercial solicitor from Putney, south west London, who has fought long and hard for the public’s right to see a 20,000-word report by senior news editor Malcolm Balen on Middle East reporting as part of the debate about a perceived anti-Israeli bias at the BBC.

The BBC argues that the report was always intended as an internal review to help shape future policy on its Middle East coverage and was never intended for publication.

Sugar initially took his complaint to the Information Commissioner, who agreed with the BBC that, although it was named as a “public authority” under the Act, it was not required to disclose material relating to its journalism.

Sugar appealed and won the backing of the Information Tribunal.

The BBC then took the case to the High Court, where a judge concluded the tribunal had no jurisdiction because the case fell outside the scope of the Act.

The Court of Appeal upheld that conclusion.

But Sugar won a ruling from the House of Lords that the case was wrongly blocked and should be heard by the High Court.

Today, Justice Irwin concluded that “the BBC has no obligation to disclose information which they hold to any significant extent for the purposes of journalism, art or literature, whether or not the information is also held for other purposes”.

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