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 Jewish Chronicle - - HOME NEWS - JC RE­PORTER

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

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