The number of freedom of information requests to the BBC where information was provided has fallen in recent years, despite concerns being raised about BBC compliance with the act.
Documents related to the Martin Bashir scandal were hidden by the BBC for many years after being initially requested under the Freedom of Information Act in 2007. They were finally released in 2020 allowing the truth about the BBC’s cover-up of the Diana interview scandal to finally be aired.
While the BBC maintains that all it does is fulfil its legal obligations under FoI, the Bashir case and other examples raise questions over whether it errs on the side of secrecy when it comes to interpreting the Act.
Through our own FoI request to the broadcaster, Press Gazette has found that in 2020, of the 989 requests submitted to the BBC that fell within the scope of the Act, information was withheld in 26% of cases – compared to 13% in 2008, the earliest year for which the BBC holds such data.
As a publicly-funded organisation, the BBC is required to comply with the UK’s Freedom of Information Act which allows anyone to request information on public bodies. The Act allows for a number of exceptions. The BBC can, for example, decide not to disclose information in cases where it feels that honouring the request might interfere with its commercial interests or jeopardise national security. Information judged to be related to “art, journalism or literature” is also outside the scope of the act.
Although not required to do so, the BBC also sometimes voluntarily complies with requests for information not covered by the Act’s terms. Data suggests that the corporation now provides information to fewer requests of this type. In 2020 the BBC provided some information in 265 (25%) out of 1,055 such cases, compared to 337 (47%) of 738 in 2008.
Our analysis shows that overall fewer BBC FoI requests have been successful in recent years. Of the total 2,044 requests received in 2020, the BBC provided partial or full information in 994 cases (49%) - the lowest rate with the exception of 2018. In 2008, 67% of requests were at least partially successful.
The BBC's frequently refuses FoI requests saying they are related to its journalism and so outside the scope of the act.
The BBC has, for example, cited this excemption when asked by Press Gazette to share information on which publishers have been more successful in attracting reporters through the BBC’s local democracy reporting service.
On 2006, the BBC declined to tell Press Gazette how many journalists earn more than £100,000 a year - again citing this exception.
The corporation used the same exemption in 2018 to block a request asking how much it spent promoting its Sounds podcast app.
The BBC told Press Gazette it could not reveal how much money it had spent on meeting FoI requests, telling Press Gazette that gathering this information would exceed FoI cost restrictions. It said, however, that it does not have a specific budget for FoI.
In 2009 the Guardian reported that complying with FoI had cost the BBC more than £3m since the act came into force in 2005, basing its calculation on staff costs for the BBC's Information Policy and Compliance team.
The corporation received 6,893 requests in the first five years of the act, from 2006 to 2010, compared to 10,904 requests between 2016 and 2020 - an increase of 60%.
Every year since 2014, over 90% of FoI requests to the BBC have been answered within the legal limit of 20 days.
The corporation now regularly discloses information which previously had to be obtained through an FoI such as salaries of its top broadcasters and executives. The BBC now also makes public how much on-air staff earn from external engagements.
A BBC spokesperson said: "The BBC responds to FoI requests in accordance with the legislation and ICO guidance. We are committed to transparency and publish more data and information on ourselves than any other broadcaster, and respond to over 94% of FoI requests on time.”
The BBC recently came under fire for its compliance with the FoI Act following the revelation that it repeatedly refused to disclose documents relating to Martin Bashir’s Princess Diana interview.
Journalist Andy Webb first wrote to the BBC in 2007 asking to see documents relating to how Bashir's Diana interview was planned and set up. He was told that there were no documents on file. After renewing his FoI request last year, Webb finally received 67 documents - however, this was two days before his Channel 4 documentary about the affair was broadcast. Webb later wrote in the Daily Mail that this had been done "in the BBC’s full knowledge that I would not be able to use it in my investigation".