BBC's fight to keep report secret reaches High Court

The BBC has begun a High Court action that could affect how much information about its journalism must be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act.

The corporation is seeking to overturn a decision by the Information Tribunal, which last September ruled that it should release an internal assessment by senior editorial adviser Malcolm Balen of the corporation’s coverage of Israeli- Palestinian issues. The case stems from an FoI request by London solicitor Stephen Sugar.

On Tuesday, Monica Carss-Frisk QC, for the BBC, told Mr Justice Davies at the High Court in London that the tribunal did not have jurisdiction to entertain Sugar’s statutory appeal under the 2000 Act.

In a case with wide implications for the future working of the Act and public broadcasters, Carss-Frisk also argued that – in ruling as it had – the tribunal had erred in law.

The judge told Sugar that he would be given ample time at the two-day hearing to make his own submissions to the court.

The BBC, Channel 4 and Welsh broadcaster S4C are only subject to Freedom of Information requests about information that they hold for purposes other than “journalism, art or literature”.

The public service broadcasters have used the “journalism, arts or literature”

derogation to reject hundreds of FoI requests.

Sugar’s two-year campaign to obtain the Balen Report, as the document is known, has gone the farthest towards establishing a precise legal definition of that phrase.

A final legal win for Sugar could mean the corporation would have to release thousands of pages of other documents that have been held back in response to other requests.

A BBC spokeswoman said the corporation’s decision to go to court had nothing to do with the fact Martin Balen’s review was about the Middle East and that the same approach would have been taken whatever area of news output was involved.

Earlier this month, the Information Commissioner ruled in a separate case that interview notes contained in the BBC’s Electronic News Production System were not subject to FOI requests.

For the latest news on the case, see pressgazette.co.uk.

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