The BBC has spent thousands of pounds of licence payers’ money trying to block the release of a report which is believed to be highly critical of its Middle East coverage.
The corporation is mounting a landmark High Court action to prevent the release of The Balen Report under the Freedom of Information Act, despite the fact that BBC reporters often use the Act to pursue their journalism.
The action will increase suspicions that the report, which is believed to run to 20,000 words, includes evidence of anti-Israeli bias in news programming.
The court case will have far reaching implications for the future working of the Act and the BBC. If the corporation loses, it will have to release thousands of pages of other documents that have been held back.
Like all public bodies, the BBC is obliged to release information about itself under the Act. However, along with Channel 4, Britain’s other public service broadcaster, it is allowed to hold back material that deals with the production of its art, entertainment and journalism.
The High Court action is the latest stage of a lengthy and expensive battle by Steven Sugar, a lawyer, to get access to the document, which was compiled by Malcolm Balen, a senior editorial adviser, in 2004.
Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner, who is responsible for the workings of the Act, agreed with the BBC that the document, which examines hundreds of hours of its radio and television broadcasts, could be held back. However, Mr Sugar appealed and, after a two-day hearing at which the BBC was represented by two barristers, the Information Tribunal found in his favour.
Mr Sugar said: “This is a serious report about a serious issue and has been compiled with public money. I lodged the request because I was concerned that the BBC’s reporting of the second intifada was seriously unbalanced against Israel, but I think there are other issues at stake now in the light of the BBC’s reaction.”
The BBC’s coverage of the Middle East has been frequently condemned for a perceived anti-Israeli bias.
In 2004, for example, Barbara Plett, a Middle East correspondent, was criticised for revealing in an episode of Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent that she had been moved to tears by the plight of the dying Yasser Arafat. MPs said it proved that the corporation was incapable of presenting a balanced account of issues in the Middle East.
Figures released by the Information Commissioner’s Office show that there have been 105 complaints about the BBC’s attitude to the Act since it came into force in January 2005. Only four of these have been dismissed and the rest are being examined. The BBC has lodged at least 25 complaints about the way other organisations have dealt with its requests.
The BBC declined to say how much it was spending on the High Court action. “We will be appealing the decision of the Information Tribunal,” a spokesman said. “This case has wider implications relating to the way the Act applies to public broadcasters.”