Last week’s High Court judgment upholding the BBC’s limited derogation from the Freedom of Information Act highlights a hypocrisy of British public life.
News organisations – although highly concerned with openness in others – can be among our most opaque public institutions.
Solicitor Steve Sugar challenged the BBC under the FoI Act to release the Balen Report – assessing whether its coverage of the Middle East was biased.
But the corporation successfully argued that the report was covered by a clause in the Act which exempts the BBC from disclosing information about its journalism.
Legal nitpicking aside, the BBC is an enormously powerful public-funded organisation and should release this report, irrespective of the Act. If certain paragraphs need to be omitted to save the confidentiality of individuals, so be it.
The BBC could argue that subjecting its journalism to FoI would place it an unfair disadvantage compared to commercial players. But perhaps there is a case for subjecting all news organisations to some form of FoI.
Without journalism, public life would have almost no accountability, democracy would not work and the police and judiciary would operate behind a cloak of darkness. But journalistic organisations have none of the same obligations towards openness that public institutions now have under FoI.
The likes of Lord Rothermere, Paul Dacre, Rebekah Wade, Richard Wallace, Sly Bailey and John Witherow – to name a few offenders – almost never open themselves to the scrutiny of a journalistic interview, despite being public figures wielding huge power. If any of them reading this has a change of heart, Press Gazette is happy to supply questions.
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