BBC told to disclose highest-paid employee in Northern Ireland

The Information Commissioner has ordered the BBC to reveal details of its highest paid member of staff in Northern Ireland but allowed the Corporation to withhold salaries of its on-air talent.

The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has ruled that the identity and pay band of the highest-earning employee of BBC Northern Ireland should be disclosed following a request under the Freedom of Information Act made in 2005. The request also asked for the payments made to several presenters at BBC Northern Ireland and the total cost of producing their programmes.

In a decision notice published yesterday, Thomas ruled that the BBC was right to withhold details of its production costs on various programmes and the salaries of presenters John Daly, Stephen Nolan, Tim McGarry, Michael McDowell.

However, he ruled that naming the top earner at BBC Northern Ireland would not violate the Data Protection Act and that there were legitimate reasons for doing so.

“The Commissioner believes that licence fee payers in Northern Ireland have a strong legitimate interest in access to information about the efficient and proper use of public money at the BBC,” the decision notice noted.

In making his decision, Thomas distinguished between top earners and “talent” who “are not in a position to make influential policy decisions”. While senior staff should expect greater scrutiny of their finances, the presenters could “expect that details of their financial arrangement with the BBC would not be disclosed”.

In 2006, the salaries of BBC presenters including Chris Moyles and Jonathan Ross were leaked to the Sun after several news organisations, including Press Gazette, had Freedom of Information Act requests relating to BBC presenters’ salaries rejected.

The BBC, like Channel 4 and Welsh broadcaster S4C, is subject to the FOI Act only with regard to information it holds for purposes other than “journalism, art or literature”.

The definition of that phrase has been at the heart of the long-running dispute over whether the BBC should release the Balen Report, an internal document reviewing the BBC’s coverage of the Middle East. Last month, the Court of Appeal upheld a High Court decision allowing the BBC to keep the report secret.

In his ruling yesterday, the Information Commissioner said the “dominant purpose” of documenting information about salaries was not “journalism, art of literature”, and therefore subject to FOI requests.

The BBC now has 28 days to comply with the ruling or appeal to the Information Tribunal.

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