Balen Report battle goes to the High Court
Lawyer takes on the BBC again to force release of a report into its MidEast coverage
THE BBC is taking its bid to block the release of a report on its Middle East coverage to the High Court.
Corporation critics, including members of the Jewish community, are suspicious that the 20,000-word Balen Report includes evidence of anti-Israeli bias in news programming.
Commercial solicitor Steven Sugar fought a lengthy and expensive battle to get access to the report under the 2000 Freedom of Information Act.
At first he was unsuccessful. Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, backed the BBC decision not to give him access. (The JC similarly applied for the report to be made public, and was also turned down.)
Mr Sugar, however, appealed, and the Information Tribunal found in his favour. Now the corporation is appealing against that decision in a landmark case which could have wide implications for the future working of the Act and for public broadcasters.
This week, Mr Justice Forbes, sitting at the High Court in London, directed that the appeal, and accompanying applications for judicial review, should be heard over two days beginning on March 27. Mr Sugar, from Putney, South London, was given permission to make his own submissions in person and join lawyers for the tribunal in defending its decision.
He said after Tuesday’s preliminary hearing: “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.
“Now I don’t know whether it is important to see this report or not. Instinct says that if they don’t want to give it to me, it may be important.
“The BBC is a public body and I believe I have a right to know what the report contains.”
The report was compiled by Malcolm Balen, a senior editorial adviser, in 2004.
It examines hundreds of hours of BBC radio and television broadcasts. Issues which arise in the case include whether the Information Tribunal had jurisdiction to hear Mr Sugar’s application and rule as it did.
The BBC is covered by the Freedom of Information Act only “for purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature”.
Along with Channel 4, Britain’s other public-service broadcaster, the BBC is allowed to hold back material that deals with the production of its art, entertainment and journalism. On this basis, the corporation has rejected more than 400 Freedom of Information requests.
Mr Sugar’s central argument was that the Balen Report was not held by the BBC for the purposes of journalism “because it’s a report about journalism itself ”, and therefore he was entitled to apply to see it under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Information Tribunal agreed with him.
Even if the BBC’s appeal against the tribunal fails in the High Court, the corporation may seek to claim that it is exempt from having to release the report to the public on other grounds.
Mr Sugar said: “You may see me still fighting this legal battle in 2010.”
A final legal win for Mr Sugar could mean the BBC having to release many other files it has held back.
Steven Sugar, on the trail of the BBC’s Balen Report, is now going to a judicial review